Technology is intertwined with almost every aspect of our lives – and the retail environment is certainly no exception. From free Wi-Fi becoming a standard expectation to growing lines at self-scan checkouts, consumers are increasingly comfortable with tech-driven in-store experiences.
And it’s not just large stores and retail giants that are attempting to take advantage of the tech revolution. Even smaller shops that rely solely on foot traffic are incentivising customers to download custom apps to reap the benefits of special promotions.
But the most inventive of retail initiatives will fall flat if not coupled with excellent customer service. Research from PwC revealed that 75% of consumers want increased human interaction, and they’re willing to pay up to 16% more for an improved in-store experience.
So, it’s clear that balancing technology with a familiar, human touch is essential for retailers to thrive. With that in mind, let’s look at three ways companies must balance tech and human interactions in the modern retail space.
Remove the fear tech will replace jobs
Nobody likes to feel that their job is at risk. Today, 2 out of 3 retail employees anticipate that technology will perform at least part of their duties, while US retail workers perceive the growing use of technology as both a “concern and potential opportunity” – according to a survey by The Fair Workweek Initiative.
Amazon has already put significant investment into AI and machine learning that will enable them to package orders up to five times faster than humans. Although, while it’s undoubtedly true that technology will play a larger and larger role in our working lives, it’s unlikely to replace jobs entirely.
“Automation doesn’t generally eliminate jobs. Automation generally eliminates dull, tedious, and repetitive tasks. If you remove all the tasks, you remove the job. But that’s rare,” says Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist. “Robots don’t steal whole jobs; they just replace certain tasks.”
In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 occupations at risk of becoming obsolete. Since then, the elevator operator position is the only occupation that’s completely extinct.
In fact, automation will free retail workers up to focus on the more pressing parts of their job. With technology taking the lead on mundane actions, employees have the time to be increasingly effective and attentive in their interactions with customers – a win-win for companies and consumers.
Combine digital initiatives with human interaction
Retailers achieve the best results when people and technology work in tandem – each pushing the other to reach their full potential.
My company, Valtech, witnessed this first hand when we teamed up with The Container Store to help launch their Organisation Studio, an interactive design tool and digital experience that helps customers organise their space.
Customers would upload a photo or video of their organisational challenge (a messy room or closet for example) into The Organisation Studio. Then, the customer schedules an in-store appointment with a live Organisation Expert to see the products and consult with a real person.
The Organisation Expert’s role is to create a personalised organisation solution for the shopper, free of charge and with no purchase commitment required. But when first launched, the initiative didn’t involve live Organisation Experts.
We envisioned customers taking photos, videos and measurements of their organisation challenge, then uploading them to an app or website. From there, a machine-learning algorithm would create a digital solution board filled with products that solve the problem.
It was a solid concept, but a key ingredient was missing – the human element.
Valtech introduced the Organisation Expert and received overwhelmingly positive feedback in user testing. The warmth of the human interaction, along with the relationship between the customer and expert were critical to the digital experience.
What’s second nature to humans is impossible for machines to replicate, and the same principle applies in the opposite direction. Physical retail environments perform far better when digital tools enhance – not replace – human interactions.
Use tech to help employees enhance customer experiences
Employees are on the front line when it comes to engaging with customers – it’s up to retailers to empower them. And having access to customer data is a powerful tool.
Data allows retail workers the opportunity to hyper-personalise their interactions based on a customer’s shopping history. This will be increasingly vital moving forward, especially when you consider that 91% of shoppers are more loyal to brands that recognise and remember them – helping to give relevant offers and recommendations.
With tech close to hand, staff can also provide customers with live inventory, product information and availability – for an enhanced, digitally-connected experience. Accessing this kind of high-level information effortlessly transforms retail employees into brand experts.
You need to gather the right data, take risks and test various initiatives to determine how to best use technology in your retail environment. But you don’t have to take on this challenge alone.
While giants of the sector such as Amazon or Tesco can undoubtedly undertake large solo technical projects, many retailers would benefit from teaming up with a digital innovation agency that can help combine their employees’ human touch with technology’s almost limitless potential.
Because as you can see, having real people supporting your digital initiatives not only enriches customer experiences – it drives better results.
Credit: Jeremy Duimstra, SVP of Connected Experiences, Valtech