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Using Mobile Technology to Reinvent the Human Touch in Retail

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With 96 mobile subscribers for every 100 people on the planet, the uptake of smart mobile devices by generations X and Y has led to the widespread assumption that all efforts involved in reaching these 'digital natives' should be directly channeled through mobile tech. But the dramatic increase in the role that mobile technology plays in our lives has also given rise to concern that diminished face-to-face interaction will contribute to increased social isolation.

Mobile technology shouldn't be about eliminating human interaction in our everyday lives; instead, it should be about enhancing human resources and relationships. The retail industry is at the forefront of innovating technology that caters to society's changing patterns of behaviour, and for good reason. Research by John Lewis shows that mobile now accounts for more than 40% of traffic to johnlewis.com, with traffic up over 115%, year on year.

But retailers should not equate mobile interaction with an exclusively app-driven experience that eliminates human interaction but rather it should be about connecting on a more personal level. This is particularly true in fashion retail where the social experience is one of the key attractions for consumers - proven by small boutiques which rely on strong personal relations as the cornerstone of their success.

Mobile technology offers the opportunity for large retailers who cannot provide the same one-to-one customer service to emulate the meaningful two-way relationship boutiques establish with their customers. This is of paramount importance in light of the 'showrooming' phenomenon, where consumers check for better deals online - while standing in a physical store. In the face of seemingly endless choices, retailers must embrace the collapsing channels of in-store and mobile if they are to survive these tests of customer loyalty.

Enabling check-in, gifts with purchase, alerts to new collections and in-store events are good ways of engaging with consumers. But most importantly, retailers must offer the human interaction with sales assistants that consumers still want. By furnishing sales staff with the mobile technology to personalise each individual customer's shopping experience, retailers can raise the level of service and personal attention to match consumers' desires. For example, a newly hired customer associate, armed with a tablet that has access to a customer's preferences based on their previous shopping behaviour has the ability to offer the expertise and advice of a seasoned associate in store.

Mobile tech can work both for the large chain and the small boutique store. For large retailers with ample resources, tablet apps can be used by sales assistants to scan items taken into the dressing room and instantly locate different sizes and styles on the shop floor, in the stock room or at nearby stores as requested by the customer. In this example, technology can deliver a boutique experience at grander proportions.

On the other end of the scale, boutique retailers are increasingly making good use of social technology, and should continue to evolve with their customers. They must remain up to date with the channel(s) customers prefer to use in order to maintain their established, close one-on-one relationships, i.e. by moving from Facebook, to Instagram, and so-on.

Mobile technology is now an ever increasing part of daily life. But simply launching an ecommerce app is not the panacea to engaging gen X and Y's narrowing attention span. Retailers would be well advised not to ignore the importance of developing personal relationships - which are still at the core of what drives shoppers. This connection can be nurtured through the right kind of interaction with mobile technology.

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