Charles de Clerk is the IT customer relations manager at Waitrose. Whilst he acknowledged a “massive opportunity with technology” for the future of the store, he emphasised the importance of maintaining the human element of shopping and the ability to interact with the customer.

“In store, people still want to interact with a person. They don’t want to talk to a machine," he said

He told conference delegates at RBTE 2017 that while it is “easy to get seduced by technology, it’s essential to consider how people like to shop.”

He broke down shopping experiences into two categories: fast and slow. “Fast shopping is fast and functional, so automation makes a lot of sense. Slow shopping is where experience matters, and Waitrose has been doing a lot in that space.” Slow shopping, de Clerk added, requires interaction with people rather than things. “For this, you need to make a store a compelling place to visit and create and build relationships with your customers.”

As part of this drive to create an attractive shopping experience, Waitrose are offering in-store services such as cooking classes and wine tasting.

The problem for retailers, according to Alex Macpherson, director of solutions consulting and account management at Manhattan Associates, is that “retailers want the shopping process to be as efficient and transactional as possible, but also want interaction with the customer to understand their purchasing habits and upsell to them".

This interaction with – and analysis of – customers can get lost with popular services such as third-party click and collect, and the new trend of shipping from store.

“The customer expects convenience, they expect same-day delivery, but the challenge for retailers is doing that cost-effectively and not sacrificing the margins”, said Macpherson. The millennial generation are mostly responsible for creating this gap between the service they expect and the service retailers can provide. “The retailers that are bridging that gap are doing very well”, added Macpherson.

Lack of customer analysis can work in the customer’s favour, however, said Macpherson, who admitted,: “In some cultures, including the UK, people can feel uncomfortable about how much their retailers know about them.”

Both de Clerk and Macpherson considered the challenges posed by the fast pace of technology innovation. Both agreed that building flexible infrastructure into technology systems so that you can evolve them to keep pace with innovations is essential.

Furthering this discussion, the panel considered smart fridges and connected homes and the affect those technologies could have on the future of retail. They agreed that the systems needed are very complex and there are many considerations that need to be addressed in order for the technologies to work seamlessly. “It could change the world, but I think it’s a long way off” said de Clerk, who added that securing these technologies “is always paramount with regulations getting tighter every year. Securing data is critical to maintain trust, and there has been a huge investment in security because of this.”

Voice technology in retail “is the future”, concluded de Clerk, countering that retailers are “put off by the thought of people walking around on headsets, not engaging with customers”. Consumers shop at Waitrose because of the “quality of service, produce and brand experience, not because of our technology.”