Never assume when it comes to customers and technology says Nigel Collett of RPA: Group




I saw a very elderly lady in Waitrose this week ask if she could access the John Lewis website.  She was given an iPad and happily started to browse like an old pro. It made me think.  

Retail brands make the assumption that all of their customer base wants to go with them on the techno journey. This prompted me to ask some fundamental questions. Do we really understand who uses technology and how they want it to operate within a retail environment? Does everybody want your store to have the latest gadgets? And if some aren't keen, how do you avoid alienating them?

Many stores have become committed members of the technology vanguard, pioneering in-store solutions that have the ring of science fiction about them: iris recognition, smart changing rooms, near field communications and clothing that can read your moods. They have seen the ultimate promise of big dataand are working to personalise their stores, in order to get to know customers better than anybody ever dreamed possible. It is exciting territory and not surprising that retailers feel the race is on.

There is no doubt that the UK, as a whole, is one of the most technofile places on the planet. As a population, we just cant get enough of new gadgetry. Not only are the British early adopters, they are also large scale consumers, with an appetite for techno products which makes other countries look pale by comparison.

There are 32m contactless cards in circulation, 83m mobile phones, 84% of us have internet access, 29% of adults own a tablet and 25% of that group use their tablets to shop. A staggering 60% of us use the internet to buy products such as food, clothing, music or holidays and more than half of mobile owners use their phone to search for information while out shopping. 

It has taken time for some high street retailers to realise that if they dont join in the technology parade it will simply pass them by, leaving virtually empty shops and even emptier cash registers.  As little as five years ago, retailers started to build the internet into their business strategies.  This has now rapidly evolved into omni-channel,a game changing retail model which integrates on and offline to create a seamless offer and new services, such as click and collect.

So what is the catch? The issue is that despite the overall trend a significant number of customers will, inevitably, not be impressed by the new initiatives. They will often feel disgruntled and even at odds with a brand to which they have previously been loyal. This group will be quite diverse in attitudes: some will not want to fully embrace IT in their own homes and daily lives, let alone experience it in-store. Others may actively enjoy technology but be turned off by it in certain situations or environments. Retailers must think carefully how to respond to this situation - some technophobics may be their best customers. 

As the elderly woman in Waitrose demonstrates, it is not easy to generalise about who has adopted technology and how they want to use it.  Nobody knows this better than supermarket chain Morrisons, which is set to abandon its self-scan service. It has had to bring back over 1,000 staffed Express Checkouts in response to shopper demand for the reintroduction of a more personalised service.  Removing the traditional interaction with a real person when paying for goods, was an error of judgement.   

Morrisonsmove coincides with new research which reveals 60% of British shoppers would opt to use a staffed check-out, compared to 40% who feel more comfortable using self-service. The survey of over 2,500 shoppers found that a good old-fashioned natter was one of the main reasons for choosing a person over a computer when it comes to bagging up the shopping.  Of course the 60% may also be happy to carry around the latest smartphone and shop online from a tablet. It shows how easily mistakes can be made.

In the case of Morrisons, customers made their feelings known and the supermarket reversed its decision. Perhaps with the benefit of the research above it may have been able to anticipate the problem and allowed self-scanning to be opt-in rather than compulsory. The key error was focusing too much on acquiring gadgetry and ignoring the tribesthat make up its customer base. 

As business guru Seth Godin points out there are tribes everywhere, all of them hungry for connection, meaning and understanding. Its a concept that is modifying the time-worn age and social class demographics that have been used in marketing for so long.  ABC1s and C2Ds are still useful markers but they are not refined enough to describe the shifting patterns of todays consumers, especially when it comes to technology.

Tribes are not brought together by age, gender, geography or even income but by being like-minded.  We have identified over the past year or so a number of key tribes to assist our clients:  the style-conscious tribe, the value tribe, the urban chic, the collaborators, the iconoclastsand many others.

Apple, for example, will be shopped by those who are style-conscious’, who are iconoclasts’, and also most probably early adopters.  Look at an Apple tribe cross-section next time you are in one of its high street stores. You will see an age range spanning several decades, from kids and students to retired grandparents. It will encompass baby boomers and generations x, y and z, with maybe a few baby alphas too.

However, within any tribe there will be sub-tribes and there will also members who over between one tribe and another. Research has revealed that 63% of shoppers welcome a mobile app personalised to navigate stores and 43% find in-store location deals (where their location is tracked to trigger personalised promotions whilst shopping) positively cool.

Some are delighted to have intelligent fitting rooms talkto them but would be horrified by a salesperson greeting them by name when entering a store, after receiving a signal from the consumers mobile phone. In fact, an overwhelming 73% found the thought of that service creepy.  In addition, 68% of UK shoppers find facial recognition unnerving.

There are regional variations at play also. If you live in London you are likely to be unphased by marketing innovation, whereas Yorkshire customers are nervous about all forms of personalisation.

In the light of findings like these, retailers should be asking themselves which technology is relevant or of interest to their customer tribes.   Obviously, for some, the basic ‘scan it yourselfoffer is unacceptable, either because it requires too much techno skill or because it is of no interest, too boring. There will be other innovations such as thumb print recognition, which maybe delight some technophiles and horrify others who might consider it a big brotherdevelopment. 

In order to avoid marketing disasters you need to identify the tribes that make up your customer base. Then, to create the ultimate retail environment for them, you will have to be able to understand their motivations, IT habits and general psychology. That is just as important as being up to speed with the latest techno inventions. If you can really get to know the tribes that inhabit your customer base, you will know if and how to incorporate IT innovations in-store to build a stronger brand. 

In my opinion Waitrose can go much further than it has so far and valuesupermarkets like Morrisons need to tread more carefully. As octogenarian internet-surfers illustrate, when it comes to technology in the retail environment, the moral is never assume.