Does In-Store Technology
Really Deliver a Better Customer Experience?   

By Al McClain, RetailWire

We've all heard the claims: The rapid advance of in-store technology will enable retailers to offer customized offers to shoppers; deliver better service via endless aisles and mobile checkouts; and give shoppers the freedom to use their own devices to enhance their brick and mortar shopping experiences.

Of course, as with most things retail, these claims are debatable. At the d2 Digital Dialogue conference in Cincinnati last week, our panel did just that — debated the potential of in-store technology. Two of the panelists were from the RetailWire BrainTrust — Bob Phibbs, "The Retail Doctor," and Phil Rubin of rDialogue. They were joined by Aliza Perruzzi of off-price, NYC-based retailer Century 21 Department Stores. Ms. Perruzzi and Mr. Rubin were mostly pro in-store technology, while Mr. Phibbs argued that in-store technology is primarily being used by retailers to cut costs, with customer service declining as a result.

They debated three claims. Paraphrased responses and audience reactions follow below:

#1: The trend toward equipping store associates with tablets and other mobile devices is a positive one.
Putting more information and resources in the hands of store personnel tends to result in better customer experiences and increased sales.

The audience overwhelmingly believed the above statement to be true.

Aliza Perruzzi: Century 21 is accelerating deployment of this type of in-store technology, which they find especially important in a low-touch, minimum customer service environment.

Bob Phibbs: Multi-tasking associates with tablets are distracted and pay less attention to customer service. Cost cutting is the real motivation behind this, not improving service.

Phil Rubin: Tablets and other technology free associates up from the check stand and bring them out to help the shopper where he or she is actually shopping.

#2: Customers appreciate good self-service options and often prefer it to human assistance. From self-checkout to endless aisle kiosks, stores can use automation to empower consumers and extend their capabilities.

The audience was divided on this one.

Rubin: Self-service can augment customer service by providing additional options when a store is busy, or additional SKU offerings via "endless aisles."

Phibbs: Physical stores need to provide great experiences, which can't be done with self-service. Funding in-store technology often requires that staff be reduced.

Perruzzi: It would be ideal to invest more in staffing but in an off-price model, technology can extend what associates can accomplish. Plus, customers expect retailers to have current technology.

#3: Customers will increasingly look for web-like experiences when in-store. Retailers will benefit from making it easier for customers to do online research while in-store and accessing their loyalty reward data.

The audience mostly felt that customers don't want stores to be more like the web, which is surprising considering the current enthusiasm for online and mobile commerce.

Phibbs: The more retailers make their brick and mortar stores like the web, the less reason there is for consumers to get out of their chairs and come to the store.

Perruzzi: The overwhelming majority of Century 21's business is brick and mortar. While going omnichannel is a goal, their in-store selection is actually larger, so they're focusing the site on social experiences with events, celebrities, etc.

Rubin: Brick and mortar retailers need to take the best of the web to help them sell more and empower their associates, especially since their top competitor may be Amazon.

Discussion Questions:

Why do you think top IT and marketing executives are on different pages? What's the remedy to the situation?
Are there any positives to this tension?

Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:

If I have to choose one, I'll say making the physical shopping experience more like the web. This gives the shoppers control over the research process. Equipping store associates with mobile technology is good and will help, but you're still dealing with human interaction, which is often flawed. Self-service technology is also good, but often flawed, creating frustration for the shopper.
Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

Equipping associates with tablets is the number one step. It gives the associate as much information about the products as the customer may have. It gives the associate confidence to engage the customer instead of running away from them. If a customer comes into your store to buy something, sell it to them. Even if you do not have it in stock, the tablet allows the associate to find another store nearby or order it online and ship to their home. Having access to information is the equalizer for store associates who are out-gunned by the customer and all their devices.
Frank Riso, Sr. Director, Global Leader, Retail Industry, Motorola Solutions, Inc.

In my opinion, these three approaches may not be mutually exclusive. I favor bringing more technology into the brick-and-mortar store to better mirror the capabilities of the web-based storefronts (e.g., companion sale recommendations for a better customer solution); I also am a proponent of equipping associates with information in the aisles (this should enrich their ability to guide shoppers); and finally, self-service options have their place. However of the three, this has the greatest risk of deteriorating customer service.
Dave Wendland, Vice President, Hamacher Resource Group

Associates equipped with tablets are a game changer. I was originally with Bob on this one, but after we deployed our fitting room tablet app that gives the sales associate the ability to offer a personal, knowledgeable experience, I changed my mind.

Customers want to engage with associates who can truly help them make a buying decision by providing them with more information. Tablets give associates that ability and, let's be real here, what Millennial sales associate doesn't love the iPad? It's intuitive and they are adept at using it efficiently.

Associates armed with tablets offer a better experience to the customer and they feel more competent knowing that they have information at hand. Tablets are a win win.
Marge Laney, President, Alert Technologies, Inc.

Okay, let's think like shoppers for a minute. One reason a shopper goes to a store is to purchase something. The reason they go to non-essential stores is for the WOW factor. They want an experience. The web starts the journey of the shopping experience and the store fulfills the journey. Going forward, the store needs to not just be like the website —it must extend the experience(s) that the website started. Soon all us retail experts will understand that in the shoppers eyes, the thing called "shopping" is a single channel game. Web, store, catalog, etc., is just shopping and not all this channel stuff.

Next, there is no one answer for how to help associates sell better at the store with devices. Some associates are best armed with tablets to address shelf stock issues. Others need nothing - except better training on how to serve the shopper and make them want to come back.

Technology does not drive retail - the shoppers do! So the type of shopper and their needs defines what a retailer should do with the in-store situation ... there is no ONE answer for all. That is just a bunch of tech spin and and not what retailers need most - which is sales spin! Spin the deals, close 'em and lift the turns!
Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

I agree with Bob, the more brick and mortar stores emulate the web, the less reason there is for consumers to visit them. Technology that would enhance the in-store shopping experience include: locators, to show consumers where items are in the store (especially big box and supermarkets); product information, be it through QR codes or some other means; and coupon/loyalty programs, to allow coupons to be uploaded and used on mobile devices and permit loyalty programs to also reside on mobile devices.
Max Goldberg, Founding Partner, The Radical Clarity Group

Of the three, I believe that providing shoppers with self-service options is likely to prove the most beneficial as it provides additional functionality (as an option) for the shopper without diminishing the option for personal (human) assistance, if desired. Notice that there is a distinction between providing shoppers self-service options and replacing personal service with self-service technology.

Any situation where the shopper is being empowered with more technology and choices while maintaining the ambiance and the service levels that have been established as points of differentiation, will likely lead to enhanced customer engagement.
Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

Full disclosure - I'm a retail technology consultant by trade.

There's no doubt that technology can enhance the retail experience, but retailers can't suspend logic to do so. At any of my presentations, you'll hear the statement "technology for technology's sake is a bad thing." That applies to any retail technology including the three described here.

For example, many BrainTrust colleagues have voiced concerns about doling out mobile devices without training employees on how to use them. So I agree totally with Bob Phibbs that unless they are trained to use them judiciously and unless applications are designed to help employees help customers personably, less customer service may be the result.

I see the real benefit of technology being consumer engagement through experiential retail displays. There's a lot coming (especially in fashion) for those retailers willing to invest in their future.
Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Let's be clear here, I'm not some Luddite saying ban technology.

What I am saying is that technology is a luxury — after you've done everything to find a way to make the shopping experience more human. That involves better hiring, training social skills and yes, retail sales training.

Once you've hit that bulls-eye on the target, additional tablets, etc. can help but they are not the bulls-eye we are being told they are. They are an outer band.

Untrained, bored, disengaged employees are still just as deadly on the sales floor with a tablet. The experience a tablet offers lazy employees means they don't have to check the rack, check on the customer, or make eye contact.

The employees serve the machines, not the customers. Big miss in my opinion. Huge.
Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

Retailers need to make their brick and mortar environments an extended experience. In-store technology needs to be implemented to fulfill the design and experiential objectives. If the in-store experience is just like the online experience, why should a shopper even make the trip? Shoppers still want to feel, touch, smell, see and experience and then buy. You can only see and buy online.

Let's not forget about people. To date, I have found that retailers are drawn to in-store technology as a vehicle to reduce headcount — not empower their staff. The attraction may be founded on enhancing the shopping experience, but the ROI and financial rationale is all about the bottom line. Retailers like Hointer seem to be getting the right balance. Minimizing in-store staff while creating a balance between online and in-store.
Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

I don't buy Bob's argument that better information tools mean distracted sales associates. One hundred years ago, the best sales associates kept a black book to keep track of their customers, and replacing that black book with a digital version that is much more familiar to the typical sales associate isn't a distraction.

When a typical store carried 1,000 SKUs that changed once a year, and for which "brand name" was a perfect surrogate for quality, sales associates could be experts on their entire inventory. Today, with 40K - 100K SKUs that change 6+ times a year, and for which shoppers want to know about dozens of unique product attributes, it's simply not possible to provide great service without digital sales tools.

Social proof has emerged as the most influential product attribute for many product categories, and it's all but nonexistent in stores that don't offer digital sales or merchandising tools in the store.

Sales associates are a heck of a lot more distracted by being assigned dozens of inventory management and store maintenance tasks while they are supposed to be selling than they are by technology.

The self-service vs. sales assisted debate has been going on in retail since Piggy Wiggly first put its merchandise in front of the counter in 1916. In my own experience, I find most customers want a self-service and a sales-assisted experience during their path to purchase, and a successful retailer will offer great experiences for both.

At the end of the day, technology tools are neither a silver bullet solution or the root cause of customer service issues. Used car dealerships had bad customer experiences well before any technology found its way to the car lot, and Neiman Marcus' Chairman's Circle members get great customer service, even though it's aided by digital clientelling tools.
Jason Goldberg, VP Strategy, Multi-Channel Commerce & Content, Razorfish

Read the entire story and RetailWire discussion at:

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                                                                         October 2013