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Old friend Alan Lipson, now with Cisco Systems, recommended I watch a show on the History Channel. The title? “Supermarket.” I may be a Schmatta Girl at heart, but everyone loves supermarkets, and the history lesson was really fascinating. But the theme was an inexorable march towards self-service.
We were led from the original concept of all food given to the customer by clerks behind the counter, to a future where food would go from shelf to cart to consumers’ cars virtually untouched by any in-store employee. The show was produced in 2005, so of course the driving technology behind this pure self-service world was item-level RFID, helped along by cart-mounted store maps to guide the customer around the store.
As we now know, a funny thing happened to self-service nirvana. Apart from the laws of physics putting a serious crimp in the notion of RFID on cans of peas and bottles of milk, there was the matter of the customer - demanding a better in-store experience. After all, if we wanted to just serve ourselves, why would we go into a store at all? Digital channels are self-service Mecca, and we wouldn’t have to worry about catching swine flu, schlepping our products into and out of carts; who NEEDS a pure self-service experience?
Retailers are no fools, and recognized the need for change. While self-service technologies certainly have a place in the store, nothing can take the place of an educated employee supporting a satisfactory customer experience. Not surprisingly, early findings from this year’s Customer-centric Store Benchmark Survey show us retailers remain fixated on using technology to satisfy their twin obsessions of improving the customer experience in the store while still holding the line on payroll costs (see figure).
Self-service isn’t going to cut it. In fact, our data over the past two years indicates retailers believe the value of self-service has peaked. Returning to the early 1900’s, when employees did everything for consumers also won’t work - it’s just not affordable anymore.
So that brings us to the hybrid, the opportunity retailers can take to support both self- and personalized service. I call that model “Assisted Service.” Today’s customer walks into the store armed with more facts and figures than most of the store employees. She likely knows what she wants, and if she doesn’t, she certainly knows the right questions to ask. Sometimes she just needs to know where to look to find the answer or the item itself.
To wit: I went to a specialty store to get some unique cat food. I had done a fair amount of research, but needed some additional information on what type to buy. The owner of this place knows everything about cats. Her daughter seems to be getting there. But now her grandson is getting into the act. I needed something specific. Sonny-boy went into a long diatribe about how one flavor of this particular brand was as good as any other, and any of them would solve my cat’s problem. I decided to believe him, mainly because he was authoritative enough. Trouble was, he didn’t know what he was talking about, which became obvious as soon as I opened the first can of food. Now I’ve got cans I can’t use and I’m missing things I COULD have used. Next time, I’ll just order it online, from a larger chain. Mom and pop retailers can’t afford those kinds of mistakes but truthfully, neither can a large chain. This store got half-way there, because I showed up. I have zero price sensitivity when it comes to my pets. But the knowledgeable employees weren’t there, and the one that was didn’t know enough to say what he didn’t. The customer experience was bad, future revenue was lost. How much better it would have been for the owner of this store to write down what she knows, imparting what each type of food was good for. That way, Sonny Boy could have engaged in a legitimate conversation with me.
To me, that’s assisted service. And that’s what I go to a store for. Otherwise, why bother? So let’s all say hello to the mobile, digitally signage supported, facts and figures enhanced in-store customer experience. Assisted service. It’s the next wave.
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About the author: Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner of Retail Systems Research, a provider of insights and consulting services into business and technology challenges facing retailers. This is a copyrighted article that is cross-posted by permission of RSR.