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Comment: Customer service trumps technology says James Breaks of RPA:Group

James Breaks

In retail the extraordinary is fast becoming the mundane. Many things we regard as essential elements of the store of the future are tech-related but, by the time they are installed, are instantly taken for granted by shoppers. Most of us are so savvy about technological advance that the latest shiny IT thing has almost become an everyday expectation.

Indeed, our taste for tech has become so jaded that long before we get the chance to sample a real game changer like AI we are, if we’re honest, possibly a tiny bit bored by the prospect.

Does this mean that retailers intent on delivering ever bigger bells and louder whistles are wasting their time in attempting to serve up a definitive future store?

Well, not exactly. But I would advocate putting both the shopper and the brand at the heart of things and not letting technology have the driving seat all to itself, even if that means delivering a lower-tech environment.

It’s a sad fact that many retailers, in their journey to harvest data, have their eye fixed so intently on the IT ball that they overlook the most important ingredient in the retail equation - their relationship with the customer.

Big Data and personal profiling are all well and good, but you have to know what to do with the data. Unless we are able to create a culture of mass personalisation, where we understand exactly who our customers are, what they would like to buy and how they would like to buy it, all the terabytes of information we harvest are meaningless. 

Put simply, the only way to make a customers shopping experience completely unique, and deliver a store that can be genuinely described as futuristic, is to understand customers better and give them what they want.

Design, of course, plays a major part in this. For years I have been unhappy with the concept of tills and checkouts, and for me new concepts like ‘AmazonGo’ go a long way to meeting my idea of what a store of the future should be.

The Amazon concept delivers, as all future stores should, not only what customers need but also what customers did not know they needed. The retail giant is clearly an organisation where there is no room for vanity and projects have to be both useful and inspiring. Not surprisingly the ‘Go’ concept is a beacon for the brand and uses a disruptive technology, in this case adapted from driverless cars.

The concept of entering a grocery store and just walking out with a beer, a sandwich or a chocolate bar, while your Amazon account is automatically charged, is for me little short of revolutionary and shows the brand has truly understood its customer.

Amazon has now successfully registered UK trademarks for ‘Go’ and may well be transforming our shopping experience within the next 18 months. It’s also an idea that can flex and change, affording the brand the chance to open electrical stores, bookstores, clothes stores… in fact a mirror image of its online offer.

AmazonGo will be inspirational to those who are looking to deliver future shop benefits to their customers. In one hit it achieves customer freedom, the thrill of doing something differently, data capture galore, inevitably bigger profits, and a more efficiently configured store space thanks to the missing bank of tills.

Amazon’s strength is its operational efficiency; by streamlining processes, its gives customers time to concentrate on other more important stuff. This brand authenticity generates trust and loyalty in the marketplace. In this relentless mission, maybe then the only flaw is that the brand might translate its business model too literally into the high street, and miss out the human touch that we all hope to find in-store these days.

Let’s hope that Amazon staff, freed from checkout duties, can have a starring role as store associates and brand ambassadors, helpful experts rather than plastic bag stuffers. Whether your store is a mould breaker or proudly unreconstructed, customer engagement is fundamental -  if you get that wrong everything else is smoke and mirrors. 

James Breaks is head of design at RPA:Group