Service Is The Future Of Retail — Not Technology

The two can (and should) work together. But as The Future Laboratory's Trevor Hardy posited at London's Retail Week, too many retailers have raced to adopt in-store tech but forgotten the art of customer service in the process.

Amid sales downturn and store closures, brick-and-mortar retailers have moved to reorganize their physical spaces and adopt new in-store technologies — but amid these changes, too often it’s a lack of quality customer service that is driving consumers away.

“We have adopted this attitude for many years now that speed is good, that faster is better, that that’s ultimately what’s going to result in a happier customer and a more successful business,” said Trevor Hardy, chief executive at The Future Laboratory, following a presentation on the future of retail at London’s Retail Week. “That may not be true. From what we’re [observing], this may be the beginning of the end of this culture of speed. There is frustration with this culture of minimal viable product, or get to market quick. Interestingly, in our digitally-driven age — in our drive to make things more efficient — one of the things that we seem to be leaving behind is the art of service, the skill of great customer service.”

It’s an interesting trend to consider. In contrast, the most popular “future of retail” narrative references the fact that retailers haven’t changed drastically over the past 100 years — that they haven’t adopted enough new technologies — and this isn’t inherently untrue. Hardy’s point is that that, in the rush to experiment with in-store technology (and shrink an overextended retail footprint), both customer service and store organization is falling by the wayside.

Some of these growing pains are inevitable. But retailers can’t lose sight of the importance of the fact that consumers come to stores to get something they can’t get at home on Amazon; essentially, no amount of beacon-based messages or in-store wifi will overcome what the customer sees as a frustrating or cumbersome shopping experience.

“Customers have grown and educated themselves a lot faster than retailers have adapted their service offerings. [But] there are a number of different ways that businesses are starting to reimagine what is service can be today. Service doesn’t just mean a happy smile or a welcoming person,” Hardy said. “[It also] means perhaps giving people something they didn’t expect, something that might be exclusive in this age of abundance.”

The Human Element

Technology can indeed be a key to surprising and delighting customers; it just has to enhance experience and interaction — not make things faster for the sake of making them faster.

In addition to creating “exclusive” in-store experiences like, for example, hosting a meet-and-greet with a well-known makeup artist in a department store’s beauty department, Hardy talked about how technology can be used to supplement and expand upon the human element of customer experience.

“We certainly think the future of retail is about service, and about the human element of service, but [it doesn’t all] have to be provided by humans,” Hardy explained. He showed pictures of CoverGirl’s “KalaniBot” a chatbot inspired by one of their key influencers, actress and model Kalani Hilliker. “The KalaniBot uses artificial intelligence to be like her. Now, people engage with the KalaniBot on social media to ask questions [about products] and more on social media.

“They engage with KalaniBot, and they know that’s it’s a bot. They know that they’re dealing with a robot — they know Kalani can’t talk to every single customer herself — and it hasn’t stopped them from doing that. The KalaniBot actually has 14 times as much engagement than the actual live Kalani did when she was just doing some promotion on Instagram and Snapchat.”

About The Author
Lauryn Chamberlain Lauryn Chamberlain @laurynchamberla

Lauryn Chamberlain is the Associate Editor of A New York City based journalist, she specializes in stories related to retail, dining, hospitality, and travel.