Do shoppers want more technology in-store?

Trying to tally what customers say they want versus what they will actually respond to can be a tricky business. 

This issue has been underscored recently by a shopper survey undertaken by Barclays  – in which 65% of respondents indicated that the availability of in-store touchscreen features would encourage them to want to visit that store. A further 57% said that smart fitting rooms would entice them down. 

So if that’s what customers are telling us, should we all be rushing out to bedeck our stores with a range of the latest gizmos and tech wizardry? How can we understand what technology to include, when and in what volumes? 

If in-store tech is the answer, what’s the question?

We are always a bit nervous about not ‘getting’ digital and looking a bit like a dinosaur. To resist digital is to seem out-of-step with the modern world, which will most likely result in being swept away by new innovative companies who are using technology to be far more efficient than you. Just consider the sectors where introducing digital has, in unexpected ways, brought about seismic change to the way things worked previously – Uber’s impact on transport for example, or AirBnB on property.

Retailers certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of having missed the boat on the ‘next big thing’ concerning in-store technology and end up losing too much ground to their competitors. There is a sense that change is coming too – after all, there has been an awful lot of talk about the lines between the high street and online blurring, the need to make the high street relevant to the digital age etc.

But to what extent is in-store technology the answer? It all rather depends on how you arrived at the question.

Basing that decision on no information at all is of course not likely to be particularly successful, but the kind of information used to inform the question from a retail perspective can come in different guises. On the one hand, there is the ‘hard’ data that retailers can track through virtue of the fact that so much of what we do now involves digital in some way. This is useful stuff, as it shows something that has definitely ‘happened’ in some capacity, although considered in isolation without understanding the wider context or cross-referencing against other datasets will necessarily limit its usefulness.

For online retailers specifically, most engagements leave data trails that can be interpreted to help understand what needs to be done to enhance the customer experience. If, for example, they see a sharp increase in the percentage of site visits coming via smartphones, then they obviously need to start serving up content in a format that is appropriate to those devices, for those sessions.

On the other hand, there is what is often referred to as ‘voice of the customer’ – feedback gained through mechanisms like surveys (such as forms part of the Barclays research). Clearly this can be highly useful for businesses, but the challenge tends to be aligning what people are saying they want (and how they behave) with what they would actually do in that situation.

Looking at both hard data and customer feedback in combination is likely to yield the best results, as it helps to at least frame the right question around evolving the proposition – to which some degree of in-store technology may be a possible answer.

If you build it, will they come?

The findings of the research show pretty clearly that in-store technology is not a panacea by nature:

As can be seen, the percentages responding that it would make them want to visit the store ‘to a great extent’ are pretty low – with a high of 13% for smart fitting rooms and virtual reality (VR) headsets. It’s pretty far from a ringing endorsement. Where people do agree it would encourage them down, the majority only state that it would do so ‘to some extent’.

By comparison, the percentages saying it wouldn’t encourage them at all are pretty high across the board.

The likelihood is that a lot of these technologies will probably still seem a little futuristic and unknown. Many people probably think having an augmented reality experience sounds quite exciting, though quite what it actually is or means will be less clear. Likewise, while whey may have a firmer idea of what a VR headset does, quite what they are going to see through it in a retail store remains a tad harder to decipher.

And the road is strewn with broken-down vehicles. The fact with in-store technology is that many retailers have tried to install things such as touch-screens before – sometimes built on their own feedback programmes where customers have said they would use them. There are a few clear benefits from the retailer’s perspective – not only are customers getting an enhanced experience, making the store relevant to the digital age etc, but everything customers do would generate data and (potentially) actionable insight.

However, in many cases customers don’t actually bother using the technology that they seemed so keen on from their original feedback, or at best only do so sparingly. It sits there looking terribly advanced and futuristic, gathering dust. And taking up valuable floor space.

And this is the crux of the problem really – it’s the old proverb about leading a horse to water. If it’s not immediately obvious how a piece of technology is going to genuinely help them in the experience they are looking to have, it becomes eminently ignorable. 

The trick is to ensure in-store technology is integrated into the overall customer engagement strategy – focusing on getting the in-store experience right rather than just embedding technology in the hope that it makes the difference for customers. Tech for tech’s sake.

It’s additionally worth ensuring that staff actually know how to use it if asked. Where retailers have tended to report better results is through giving staff connected technology – such as tablets – to help deal with customer queries. This works for customers as it is technology used in their interest and for their convenience.

In fact, it would be possible to make an argument for click & collect as being the most successful use of in-store technology in recent years – someone buys online, picks up in store. The simplicity of it makes it clear for everyone to understand, it maximises convenience for them and it helps drive footfall.

The buzz topics – VR and AI

There seems to be a lot of focus at the moment on the potential for VR and artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the retail experience. Neither are specifically in-store technologies – though both offer opportunities in that capacity too.

Both are unquestionably interesting, but once again it comes down to implementation and customers’ willingness to engage with them. 

Using a VR headset in-store may be good fun for a few minutes, but would it necessarily lead to an uplift in sales? The point about VR is that it’s virtual, ie not real, so it can create worlds that are distant or even entirely imaginary. If an application can be found that enables people to browse from the comfort of their own homes, it could have a fairly significant role to play in future – the issue at the moment is that costs of getting the necessary equipment at home are prohibitive at any kind of scale.

On AI, the most apparent use in retail currently seems to be around the use of chatbots – which is an automated version of customer service, essentially. The benefits for retailers are clear – massive increases in efficiency, every single word tracked and processed as actionable insight, 24-hour service etc – but for many customers this is going to be their first overt experience with an AI system.

Again we could list the benefits for the end-user – a comprehensive bank of knowledge to access for answering queries, high speed of response, 24-hour access – but what we cannot know is how people will react to communicating exclusively with, what is in essence, a robot.

They might think it’s highly useful and fun, or they might find the whole experience a bit weird. There may be plenty of unanswered questions, but it’s interesting to note that the Barclays survey found having a ‘robot customer service representative’ was the least appealing in terms of encouraging them down to a store – just 3% said it would encourage them to visit a store ‘to a great extent’.

So people may say that they want technology in-store, but it’s only worth doing if it will genuinely enhance their experience in some meaningful way. As is so often the case, what people say they want and what they actually do can be leagues apart.

1) Barclays, The new retail reality, 2016

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