#NRF2020: Technology is the answer, but what exactly is the problem?

If there’s a consensus that’s emerged from NRF2020 it’s pretty much that’s there’s no consensus. The high street looks precarious, online looks insufficiently profitable, we’ve bred a generation of consumers with increasingly high expectations of service and fulfilment and created the monster that is returns culture.

But NRF being NRF, and NRF being a technology show, there’s always the sense that whatever the problem technology holds the answer. If we could only agree what the problem is.

If I were to pick three trends highlighted by the show they’d probably be convergence, convenience and personalisation. In some ways the three are linked. Convergence is essentially about all the various channels becoming more like one another.  

According to Erik Nordstrom, Co-President of the US luxury department store chain Nordstrom, and quoted by Essential Retail, more than half of store sales involve online and a third of online sales involve a store. He explains that analysts always want to know about the retailer’s sales per channel and they have models built out for it, but “I’ve yet to have a customer use the word ‘channel’ with me”.

It’s a point well made. Retailers working behind the scenes see channels, consumers only see a storefront whether its physical or digital.

Then there’s convenience. A survey just out by the NRF found that 83% of respondents value convenience more now than they did five years ago, while 97% –  in other words almost everyone – had backed out of a purchase because the process was inconvenient. So, whatever the ‘channel’ consumers want their lives to be easy and their shopping experiences to be pleasant.

Technologies hyped in this context include facial recognition (assuming the EU doesn’t ban it), beacons and scan-as-you-go. Facial recognition, once seen primarily as a weapon in the war on shoplifting, is now being talked about as a way of cutting checkout queues and ‘clientelling’ – that awful term for recognising and serving customers personally. Combined with object-recognition systems customers are tracked around the store, items they put in their baskets are logged and their faces are linked to their bank accounts so they walk in and walk out and are charged automatically. Amazon have been experimenting with this sort of thing at their Amazon Go convenience stores. Beacons meanwhile broadcast to customer mobiles and point the way towards bargains. Scan-as-you-go is already popular with shoppers. According to the new report from SOTO, “From ‘Bricks to Clicks’ are you ready for the retail revolution?” 51% of Swedes think it improves the shopping experience while some Tesco’s customers were apparently outraged when the store stopped accepting cash payments from scan-as-you-go shoppers.

Lastly there’s personalisation – mining consumer data to provide a tailored service, typically product recommendations based on purchase history or individualised offers that reward customer loyalty.

But here’s the thing – in looking for the next new thing retail is in danger of forgetting what really matters. We talk about personalisation and forget the personal. In the name of convenience you’re whisked from one end of the store to the other without any human contact. What could be more impersonal? You want to ask store staff about a web offer and there’s no one around who knows and only a poorly executed bot to chat to online. You just want a jar of pickle and beacons don’t help but bombard you with offers.

Technology is great but it’s not an end in itself. Let it crunch the numbers – it does that better than you or any of your colleagues could. It can help you raise availability and cut waste, make sure you respond to trends and tailor the assortment of each store to local shoppers, the nuts and bolts foundation of good retail. But let your people do people! Yes, help them by providing them with information about products and even the customer. But, don’t lose sight of the fact that no amount of technology can make retail truly personal, only your colleagues can do that.

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