Technology is rapidly increasing our ability to conduct transactions without any human interactions. Shown here: The Hyundai Card Air Lounge at Incheon International Airport, Korea. Original photo by Ryan Gobuty, © Gensler.
Retailers around the world are experimenting with technology to increase sales. Generally speaking the focus is around empowering customers with information and access to bring them closer to the buying motion with as little effort as possible. New store models that are as simple as posters on walls with pictures and symbols, such as the Tesco installation in the Korean subway, are letting customers make impromptu purchases in nontraditional transaction environments. Goods are delivered directly to customers and it's not unusual to purchase something either from home or on the go without ever speaking to a sales associate. This is having the gradual effect of removing the relationship from the experience of buying. It's more prevalent in some businesses than others. Commoditized goods like groceries or everyday apparel are more easily involved in these transactions because we accept the possibility that when we receive our online or QR code pop-up purchased goods they'll be less than optimal. Maybe the pears will be a little greener than you like or the sweater's texture slightly rougher than you imagined. We accept this tradeoff as a function of convenience and we've always got a recourse if we're compelled to return the product. But all of this technology leveraged in the name of convenience is putting at risk one of the most important parts of the customer relationship: the relationship itself.
A lot of technology is focusing on the way we can make the sales process remote. But as we make it more and more remote, we sideline important relationships to the point where they're no longer important. For retailers of goods not of their own production this should be most concerning. It's slow, but we're gradually removing the need for the big box brick and mortar store. It's not unreasonable to imagine a not so distant future where we'll seek out brands directly to buy our goods, a future where the last iteration of the general store disappears. It could happen…
What we need to focus on more is the way we can enhance the relationships brands have with their customer bases and leverage technology as a means of empowering the primary standard bearer of the in store experience: the store associate. Associates are the handshake, the smile, the understanding ear, the extra hand that helps you find what you’re looking for. It's the reason why one of the most valued companies in the world, Apple – the brand most often mentioned as customers’ favorite in our own brand engagement survey – is so successful. Not because of the products they sell, which are all about technology, but because it’s been clearly communicated to put the customer first and to help that customer find a solution to their problems through the help of a real person that listens, sympathizes, and solves. Every associate is a living touch-point of the brand experience. We may get to the point where technology catches up and associates become another hardware asset, but for the moment we need to refocus on supporting a transaction environment where the associate is given the tools to enhance the customer's experience in a way that builds a relationship. Brands thrive on relationships. And the most effective way to build brand relationships is through people. We need to make sure that as we develop new ways to serve our clients that we're doing it by leveraging technology on behalf of sales associates, not in spite of them.
Alan Robles is an experience designer with the Retail Studio at Gensler where he works across all practice areas to support in the design and development of projects to increase the value of the in-person experience.