For a long time now we have heard about the tumbleweed in the High Street and its slow, crippling decline due to its evil nemesis, online stores. But I'm really excited to see a rejuvenation of enthusiasm to go shopping again.
Having grown up in a retail environment working for the small guys and some of the big guns, I know people love to shop; in fact I love to shop. And I'm not alone, according to research giant Nielsen, 71% of consumers still prefer an in-store experience.
Innovative technology in retail such as augmented reality, digital installations, and 3D holograms, are getting customers back in shops and reminding them of the value of in-store brand experiences. These new technologies are creating experiences we never thought possible in the here and now. Why not test out a new Audi directly from their catalogue? Or how about trying on a Tissot watch at Selfridges without even going inside the store?
Take the Me-Ality Size-Matching Station in Bloomingdales and other retailers across the US, for example. The perfect pair of jeans can be the hardest thing to find but this new technology takes a 3D scan of your body and then directs you to jean brands and styles that best suit your shape. It takes only 10-15 seconds, you don't even have to get undressed and then it prints off a unique list of matches for you to try. I dread buying jeans so I wish someone would bring this to London.
Augmented reality is another growing trend in the retail sector. Be it the Nike Fuel Station at Boxpark where staff were given iPads to show customers products in augmented reality and mirrors used digital avatars to track movements and tell consumers more about the product. Or be it a luxury jewelers like Garrards letting you virtually try on a tiara so you too can feel like Kate Middleton and be a princess for a day.
These technologies are challenging notions of conventional shopping and customers seem to love it.
However they want more and demand more. They want to be thrilled and satisfied - well don't we all?
They can be demanding because they bring the competition into the store in their pocket as customers have a huge reliance on their smartphones. So what's the point in creating this great digital experience in-store if there is nothing to follow through beyond it? And if consumers are using the store to research their online purchases - which many do - stores should be securing the gap between them leaving the store and connecting with them online. These experiences should be helping bridge that gap by syncing with the online store and closing the loop.
Of course these in-store installations are not for everyone, as of now they are a big business tool with a hefty price tag and small businesses will still have to think outside the box to compete. But no one should ever underestimate the value of good old fashioned, traditional customer service. As with every customer touch point these in-store experiences should go hand in hand with good customer service. Good customer service - through every channel - produces memorable customer experiences every time. Brands that continuously flog the online are forgetting the strong human need for personal interaction.
Social media plays a big part here too; Twitter, Facebook and any other network where a customer can contact a store, is now part of a store's customer care plan. Quick, personal responses are the equivalent to what they would get in-store and are essential. Any automated messages to counter a public complaint on social media can be even more damaging than a scene in-store that ends with a customer screaming, 'I'll never set foot in this shop again!'.
Ultimately the in-store experience should be there to enhance customer service. These experiences should be extensions of the excellent customer care already being provided. If I visit a store to buy a pair of jeans using the Me-Ality Size-Matching Station but there is no-one to help me find the jeans or make well informed recommendations on products, what's the point? A personal recommendation from a good sales assistant that you have related to, is going to sell better than any machine. These digital investments will just become dead, unprofitable space on the shop floor and as all good retailers know every inch of the shop floor must perform.
I believe good customer service can still be futuristic. Good service will never get old and I, like all sales assistants, will have to continue to tolerate the most irritating idea, that the customer is always right! Now they have even more opportunities to be right. The future of retail is digital but not in isolation and not solely in-store. The future is not just competing on price but on why you provide the best service. It's not ground breaking, it's been said before but it's just a reminder on how best to plan for the future.