Customer Experience is the Future of Retail

One of the things that interests me about retail is the potential for performance – for art, drama and transformational customer experiences. But so few retailers deliver this. In almost every case, I am underwhelmed by the retail experience. The range on offer is limited, understocked or difficult to find. Customer service – should you actually be able to find someone to serve you – tends to be cursory and uninformed. Sure there are exceptions … but these tend to be localised – known and loved in pockets across the city.

One of my favourites are the jovial, knowledgeable and friendly “grandpas” at Bunnings Warehouse who are not only helpful but willing to share a lifetime of home maintenance experience. When I bought my first lawn mower years ago, I was guided through the different options and brands by a man who might have been my own grandfather. He not only sold me the option he thought was best for my needs, he also gave me tips on mowing – time of day, technique and even suggestions to get the right kind of edge close to the vege patch. This high touch customer service humanises the vast spaces of the hardware warehouses that have become weekend Meccas for Australian home owners with more than a passing interest in DIY.

My local salon, MGs for Men, also takes a very different approach to customer experience. It’s neither a bare bones barber shop nor a relaxing pseudo-day spa, it’s closer to a testosterone laden workout. Staffed by a team of edgy, tattooed young men, it feels closer to a gym with squads of buff personal trainers prowling the tiles whipping their charges into physical shape.

But fewer of the larger retailers can claim anything like this sense of brand personality. In fact, I often feel awash in a sea of beige.

Going online is no better. Australia’s major retailers ignored eCommerce for decades – insisting that it was a fad and that shoppers would eventually return to the bricks and mortar experience for the convenience of immediate delivery, sizing in-store and handling returns. Harvey Norman and David Jones have recently revamped their sites – which is a welcome improvement – but still falls far short of a “transformational experience” with limited or no thought given to the online customer’s buying process. The sites are designed around the way that the retailers categorise their range rather than helping customer discover or browse – there are no sizing charts to give the customer a sense of confidence and there is no help or customer support to be found. The visual clutter sends confusing signals to the online shopper and – and there is scant regard to the social dimension of shopping with a basic nod to Facebook here and a review tab or two there.

Compare all this with the trends and opportunities presented in PSFK’s Future of Retail report for 2012 – the “new brand champion” and “retail on-demand”:

  • The new brand champion acts as not only an advocate, but an affiliate to your retail business. They use their social-savvy connections to advocate and sell on your behalf and profit themselves in the process. They also provide vital input into the product rage, design offers (think “crowdsourced buyers”) and deliver shopper-to-shopper customer service.
  • Retail on-demand is the fully digital experience – delivered by ANY connected device. Shoppers trade their data for better, more tailored options and service – from auto-curated shopping to “fit with a click” technology that takes the guess work out of online purchases.

Clearly, Australian retail is some distance away from this type of experience. But it’s not the trend or distance from the trend to the reality that most concerns me. It’s the lack of vision. The trends point in a fundamentally different direction from that followed by Australian retailers. The trends are focused on the customer experience and are centred on the customer journey. For the most part, Australian retail barely acknowledges the existence of the customer. We won’t be able to fix Retail until we fix retail. It’s time to get back to the customer experience.

PSFK presents Future of Retail Report 2012

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