Where Self-Service Meets High-Touch: The Death Zone of Retail

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The road to an exceptional customer experience is far from linear. With all the best intentions, merchants are starting the journey to a future where customers receive the personalized, high-touch experiences they demand. Yet the outcome of these efforts have been wildly unpredictable and a new focus will be required to complete the work.

Many retail pundits have pointed to digital vs. physical store experiences, complex customer journeys, and decreasing loyalty as causes for retailers’ misfortune. However, I believe the sudden flux in retail comes down to a single choice; the choice to implement technology for automated and self-service experiences, or high-touch and full-service.

The only down-side to this decision is one choice is not necessarily better than the other. This is the death zone of retail – the middle ground where self-service meets high-touch and businesses try implementing technology for both experiences. The outcome of which is underwhelming and confusing for customers.

Macy’s is Middle Ground Warfare

Take Macy’s as an example. Macy’s implemented scan-and-go technology in their stores as an attempt to correct severely declining sales. Soon after deploying the program, Macy’s faced extremely low adoption rates.

Why is this? The new scan-and-go addition clashed with Macy’s traditional, human-facilitated store processes. Yes, customers now had a self-checkout option, but the technology wasn’t supported by other in-store or online processes necessary to provide a complete self-service experience. Sales associates still populated Macy’s storefronts.

Macy’s still had sales associates leaving consumers confused and uninspired with the overall experience. Should they use self check-out? Or should they flag down a sales associates? What kind of experience was Macy’s trying to provide? What value does Macy’s ultimately want to provide to their shopper? When brands provide a little bit of both experiences, the experience as a whole becomes forgettable and ends-up yielding marginal value for shoppers.

Retailers need to pick a lane and stay in it.

The lesson here is simple. Retailers cannot exist somewhere in the middle of these two experiences. When investing in technology, retailers must choose to create a fully automated, self-service shopping experience or one that is high-touch and immersive.

Most importantly, the ultimate purpose of the experience must be consistent across the entire brand experience so shoppers know what to expect. As each distinct brand interaction provides this value, the customer experience as a whole will leave a bigger impression.

It should be noted that choosing which experience to deploy will largely depend on the type of product a business sells. Luxury goods and high-end apparel brands beckon an immersive, high-touch model while general merchandise and low-end goods can succeed with a self-service model.

So, what does it look like when merchants get it right for both self-service and highly immersive brand experiences? All you have to do is look at retailers who are leading the way in customer experience.

Amazon + Self-service = Success

Amazon is a great example of how to deploy a successful self-service model both in-store and online.

We’re all familiar with Amazon’s amazing and efficient ecommerce experience. Now their recently opened brick-and-mortar store, Amazon Go, is a continuation of the self-service experience they are already loved and praised for.

Using their Amazon Go app, Shoppers scan their personalized barcode as they enter the Amazon Go store. Then hundreds of cameras track their movement throughout the store keeping tabs on the items they placed in their baskets. When they leave the store, the system charges them for the items they’ve taken and gives them a digital receipt in their Amazon Go app.

While associates are present in the store in case of malfunctions, Amazon has made it known that the value of the experience lies in the highly efficient, cashier-less shopping experience.

Bonobos paves the way for immersive, high-touch experiences

Flip to the other side of the coin where technology enables retailers to provide highly personalized and immersive experiences. It’s not just about having sales associates around to help when consumers need it. It’s about having sales associates there to cater to the needs and nuanced preferences of each unique shopper.

Bonobos is one of the modern leaders in high-touch brand experiences, especially with their brick-and-mortar experience.

Before making any contact with a customer, Bonobos asks shoppers to schedule an hour-long personalized visit at one of its Guideshops. Once at the venue, customers are greeted by associates who guide them through a personalized tour and fitting. To ensure a highly customized experience, store associates are equipped with iPads that provide detailed product and customer information.

Requiring customers to schedule hour-long appointments communicates the experience will be high-touch and highly personalized to them. When providing an immersive model, technology should be used to understand the customer on a deeper level and build a stronger relationship. This way, the overall value of the experience is consistent and clear.

It should be mentioned, however, that even leaders like Bonobos have yet to take advantage of every high-touch opportunity.  Just like Amazon, Bonobos next step should be creating a high-touch online experience that’s consistent and connected to the brick-and-mortar experience.

For example, this brick-and-mortar to online transfer could be facilitated through 4-Tell’s Your Store. Your Store is a personalized microsite where sales associates can create and publish product boards for individual customers on their ecommerce website.

When implementing technology, businesses must fully commit to creating either highly efficient, self-service experiences or immersive, high-touch experiences. The more businesses can lean into either end of the pendulum, the more impactful, successful and valuable the overall customer experience will be.

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