The writer is an executive vice president and general manager with NetWorld Alliance, which publishes this site as well as Self-Service World and KioskMarketplace.
Retail’s current form is weakening and will not survive.
There is a silver lining, but for now and for most retailers, there’s a black cloud. The customer’s retail experience has devolved to a point that mere adequacy is the best that can be expected, and that minimum standard is inconsistently evident. Many stores are uninspired, often with poor environment, poor display, inadequate selection, inadequate information, out-of-stock merchandise, poorly-executed merchandising, less-than-knowledgeable sales staff and clogged checkout lanes. Poor retail service exists at mom-and-pops, the big boxes, the bigger boxes, QSR (quick serve restaurants) -- almost everywhere that retail bricks are joined by mortar.
Increasingly, traditional retailers miss sales opportunities while customers exert direct transactional control, getting exactly what they want by buying online. They simply log into the fully-personalized Internet experience and shop on their own schedules, while receiving directly targeted branding messages everywhere they click.
Success trickles out of the traditional retail model because most stores are not evolving as rapidly as the marketplace.
Admittedly, good retail is hard to do.
It’s hard to sustain commercial difference in the minds of demanding, fickle customers. Tough and creative competition surrounds most retailers, and sub-five-percent margins barely let retailers breathe.
With recent thoughts based on my 23-year experience working in retail and with more than 2,000 retailers, and stemming from lessons I have learned while co-owning and managing part of a media organization devoted to the self-service and kiosk industry, I ask retail executives to consider a vision that will provide far greater success.
The vision will be realized when a well-integrated strategy of self-service and assisted self-service technology and solutions are deployed. This is not the bias of an industry insider: it is profitable, time-tested reality that forward-thinking organizations use to generate ROI today.
The self-service investment consistently proves its value: pay-at-the pump at c-stores, ATMs, photo kiosks, airline ticketing devices, grocery and retail self-checkout and today’s rapid growth of digital signage. And yet, the retail industry is slow to adopt.
What they have adopted is a frustrated attitude toward service. It’s perceived as too hard to find, train and keep qualified sales associates. Many leading retailers have a diminished vision of service, and the customer can tell. Increasingly in the future, more enlightened retailers will steal those customers.
If retailers wonder how self-service can extend their brands, consider how museums attract crowds by making seemingly boring textbook theories into lively, immersive experiences. Car batteries and broccoli aren’t anymore appealing than scientific axioms. But an interactive, hands-on experience brings life to any of them. The most seemingly mundane products draw more customers when presented on branded multimedia kiosks, surrounded by dynamic, animated digital signage, offering the customer as much information as desired when buying. While this technological explosion envelops all age groups, it especially grabs the young demographics precious to retail.
Let’s move from big box to smart box, building smaller stores offering more products with better service: hire fewer people, use customer-facing devices. We’ll combine the kiosks and digital signage for a more dynamic, focused customer experience.
Let’s use the kiosks to train the employees with procedures, involving them in corporate culture and equipping them with product knowledge in the downtime.
Let’s convert our stores to surpass the current brand. If our current brand is insufficient to resonate with today’s customer to a high degree, we should change it, and extend it more effectively throughout the marketplace.
Let’s create a true retail experience where the customer is honored based on what they want, rather than delivering the options we hope they want based on what seems reasonable to deliver.
Let’s provide a creative environment within our stores, appropriate to products and services, with an experience that is better and more-evolved than the slower competition. This unique first-person experience will be impossible to duplicate on the Internet.
Let’s use digital signage to grab customers’ senses at the front of the store, perfectly relaying the brand experience – intrigue, excitement, mystery – through the best sales media of all: customers’ emotions.
Let’s take a clean sheet of paper and design the whole store to convey the experience through kiosks and digital signage. Let’s create this smarter buyer experience across more store locations and off-site kiosks, with great economic leverage. Make the entire digital signage and kiosk experience into a single, powerful message, managed strategically by enlightened executives and operated tactically by one person at one computer using thoughtful, well-designed software.
Let’s provide the ultimate in product information, choice, comparison, and demonstration in a way outmatching anything found at current stores, or ever on the web.
Let’s create this useful content in close proximity to the products to which the information relates.
Let’s employ highly effective merchandising techniques on display devices to cross-sell, up-sell, and accentuate merchandise. Retailers will quickly enjoy what Coke has learned at quick service restaurants: when beverages are encouraged or up-sold by effective and consistent self-service devices, beverage sales increase at least 15 percent.
Let’s create targeted product information providing an effective sales relationship. Let’s make the content truly useful for purchasing, and not inappropriately focused in its own flash factor.
Take for example an appliance store. We need only one washer and dryer pair to offer a brand’s look and feel, associated with the appropriate product information provided by self-service devices or from a knowledgeable, well-trained salesperson using assisted-selling devices. Having multiple products from many brands displayed is unnecessary for almost any type product, and costly in many ways.
Let’s sell music, movies, games and software burned locally on the fly, or offer listening and viewing stations with the merchandise warehoused in floor-to-ceiling shelving in the back room, eliminating costlier display space.
Let’s hire fewer people in these smart boxes, and recruit with instant profiling capabilities provided through in-store HR kiosks, querying for career-oriented personnel, and let’s use the money we save by selling smart to pay better. Let’s create pride by using self-service to hire the best people, offer them the best training and empowering them with the best tools.
Let’s imagine a better way. Let’s accept a new, better vision. Let’s feel pride through the orchestration of this vision. Let’s better understand the current customer plight and catch up to the way they want to do business.
The shoppers won’t wait much longer, and while you’re reading this, so is your competition.
Bob Fincher can be e-mailed at .