Why retail needs a human dimension

The actor, Rutger Hauer, passed away last month. He’s probably most famous for playing an android in the movie Bladerunner, the bleak science fiction classic set in a fantastical 2019 that asks some penetrating questions about what makes us human.

In the real 2019 we’re also asking questions about the role of technology in our society and what makes us human, and what we’re coming to realise is that technology can make us both more and less human.

At its best technology is an enabler that can increase our efficiency and lift some of the burden of laborious, repetitive work. In retail that helps makes sure products reach the shelves quickly so they’re there when the customer wants them. Artificial intelligence – not the AI that makes Hauer’s character so hard to tell apart from a real human, but pragmatic, machine-learning-based AI – is outstandingly good at crunching data, producing accurate forecasts and analysing trends. Robotics is poised to take over warehousing roles and perhaps, before too long, tasks like shelf stacking, identifying gaps on shelves and even deliveries.

But there are dangers for retailers, not least that they see it simply as an opportunity to cut people out of the equation to reduce their operating costs.

‘Well why not?’ you might ask. Cutting overheads gives a business more latitude to compete on price, to increase its marketing or simply to take the cash as profit.

My answer: because it’s short sighted. While it’s simple to let people go, it’s far harder to get those people back or to recruit and train new colleagues when you realise just what you’ve lost. It’s equally hard to get customers back when they decide they don’t want to visit your stores any more.

In the real world of 2019 consumers are savvier than they’ve ever been. They have the most sophisticated tools to help them make choices we’ve ever had access to. If a shopping mission is purely functional (read boring) and, let’s be honest, plenty are, the internet is your friend. Comparing products, prices and fulfilment options is getting ever easier. As retailers we constantly need to be asking ourselves the question ‘why would I come to a store?’ Above all, why would you go all the way to a store to experience frustrations of online shopping such as not being able to find anyone to give you informed product advice? If you’re not offering customers a reason to visit, like superior service, you’re essentially ceding the battle to online retailers.

But there’s another clear trend amongst consumers; the quest for ‘experiences’. It’s not just ‘I need a hammer’, but rather ‘I fancy going to a tool store and seeing what they’ve got, asking the assistants for some advice and maybe grabbing a coffee.’

Retailers need to seize the opportunity afforded by increased productivity and reduced operational costs to invest in the people who help make shopping fun or exciting or an opportunity to add to one’s knowledge.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while technology changes fast, human nature doesn’t. Shopping is now, as it has been since the dawn of history, a very social experience, one that can’t be supplied by robots. Hauer’s character in Bladerunner, Roy Batty, may be almost indistinguishable from a human, but today’s robots aren’t.

We need other humans to provide the human interaction we crave. Well-trained staff can transform a shop into a theatre, something to enjoy and experience, something to bring you, the customer, back and somewhere where you will spend more money!

We’re seeing it in the UK and US where there’s a trend towards siting restaurants in retail stores.

We see it at destinations like Bicester Village in Oxfordshire where not only is there a critical mass of luxury goods retailers but staff on hand to help Chinese and Arabic visitors and a host of pop-up events.

We’ve seen the opening of a US store that employs actors to play characters around the store who don’t just help customers find products but act out interesting scenarios with them. Perhaps it’s just a new take on product and recipe demonstrations but it’s entertaining and draws people into the store for experiences they can’t get elsewhere!

Even the discounters, those most pragmatic of retailers, try to make visits to their stores more ‘fun’ by including aisles full of wacky bargains. If you see people linger in discount supermarkets it’s either to browse through those bins or to chat with the checkout staff.

In an age where brands and the personal connection we have with them form part of our identities, giving those connections a human face and nurturing them is a smart strategy for future business success. Otherwise, in the face of online competition, you risk seeing those hoped for profits disappear ‘like tears in the rain.’

Andrew Blatherwick is chairman emeritus of retail planning and replenishment solutions company RELEX Solutions. He has held leadership roles in numerous other retail technology companies and had a distinguished career in retail at Boots and Iceland.