Opinion

The future of retail – beware the buyer?

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Rupert Goodwins
Written by Rupert Goodwins

A rousing sermon or an incendiary speech from a soapbox sends the listeners out reinvigorated and ready to carry on the good fight. The Future Of Retail Report from Visa Europe is the corporate equivalent – good news, designed to reassure technology strategists that they’re on the right road.

Whether hell-fire, the downfall of the oppressor, or increased ROI is promised, though, it’s always good to season the meal with a pinch of salt from one’s own life. The report promises ‘key consumer trends’, and it delivers – but finding the best bits needs a little chewing first.

It’s a good exercise when reading to substitute ‘they’ for ‘we’, ‘the customer’ for ‘myself’. We might be mobile developers, CIOs or marketing execs, but we also go shopping for our undies in M&S. Using this one simple trick, let’s see what’s under the surface.

For a start, the report says, lots of people have smartphones, lots of them are on social media and lots of them like using both when they’re buying stuff. Checking that against how me and all my friends behave: yes, spot on. How about you and your friends? Thought so. So: right but a little obvious. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. But what does this mean in practice?

“Customers want personalised shopping experiences across all touch points
Whether in a physical store or through digital channels, shopping is no longer simply a utilitarian acquisition of a need or want; customers are looking to be entertained, surprised and delighted by their retail experience.”

Farewell, dull days of utilitarian acquisition! But when were they, exactly? Must have been before 1848, when Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair that his character Amelia was not “at all above the pleasure of shopping, and bargaining, and seeing and buying pretty things”. True, she didn’t have Facebook on her iPhone, but I suspect retail therapy has been around since the Phoenicians swapped wine for tin on the Bronze Age Cornish shores. They were party animals, those sailors and miners.

People haven’t changed, and saying that technology is changing us risks putting the tech, not the humans, first in the equation. Yes, things are developing, and Visa is right to point that out, but are its wishes a good match to ours?

“Increasingly, people are becoming accustomed to algorithms that learn about their preferences and their behaviours to offer online shoppers personalised recommendations. Consumers now want that same customised experience of suggestions and alerts when they shop on the high street.”

How “accustomed” are you to algorithms that follow you around making helpful suggestions online? Personally, I’d still put it much closer to the “annoyed and creeped out” end of the spectrum, most of the time. When it works, it’s remarkable – but as much for the fact that it has worked as for the result. So don’t assume that the rapid spread of the technology is universally pleasing, or wanted – if you overlook that, you risk alienating, not enticing, the customer.

“There is growing demand for social shopping experiences” – in other words, people are using the tech to make good decisions, and want more. Dead true, and as the report says, people are mixing and matching everything they find helpful in locating good stuff at the best price. You and I do this, especially during sale time and Christmas – but we decide our tools and strategy, and throw away the bad as eagerly as we embrace the good.

So when Visa says that “beacon and Bluetooth technologies have the potential to identify loyal shoppers and send them messages based on previous purchases or items they may currently have in their online checkout basket.” it’s true, but doesn’t say whether this is what people want. Perhaps it is, but check your own experience of suddenly becoming aware that you’ve been tracked and targeted. Surprise doesn’t always equal delight.

It can. My first experience of a shop where I could buy things at the shelf rather than queuing for a checkout was delightful – as the report says, “Mobile technology can also improve the payment experience with mobile point of sale devices that enable sales assistants to move away from fixed till points and deeper into the selling space, creating better engagement with their customers.” I bought more, I used mobile payment tech, and I was as happy as Amelia.

People want pretty things. Help them do that, and you’ll be fine. Remember to check your corporate reports against your own life, and you won’t forget that this is what matters.

photo credit: El Productor: La verdad sobre un rol distorsionado via photopin (license)

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Rupert Goodwins

Rupert Goodwins