The sense and nonsense of technology

Our opinion published on the blog of Paris retail week

Trendwatchers and technology experts say we are only at the verge of what technology and AI might become and mean in our lives. As Retail Prophet Dough Stevens says, and I quote “we are at the end of the beginning of the development of technology”. As I might shiver at the thought of how intrusive technology is/can be, kids enjoy technology and use it to their benefit without a second thought. While most people still think about whether or not to buy online, to use chatbots, or if its worth the effort to have a shoe personalized or 3D-printed, the millennials have already done that or are just waiting for such developments to occur. I believe their way of using technology, their need to use it in a way it is either fun or it should make life simpler, might offer insights on how this field is progressing.

Also in retail, the adoption of technology will happen in a similar way: look at the millennials to see how technology can have an added value. It is either fun, like Mediamarkt applies technology in its new store concept, or functional, like the AmazonGo store. I believe stores will have that very same choice in how they can evolve in the next decade. A retailer can either choose to be very efficient and functional – to make our lives simpler – or either be fun and offer experience. Everything in between will drop out, eventually.

Those who choose to go for, or are already in, offering fun and experience will have to evolve to Live retail. Other terms like phygital retail or seamless retail kind of mean the same thing (evolving to an omni-channel shopping experience), only the online component comes more forward in phygital, which is a combination of physical and digital, just like seamless which still speaks of the seamless integration of online and offline. What I like about the term Live retail is that it says nothing about online, offline or physical, etc. It says that the retail experience should be personal and authentic. It puts the customer central, not the medium. So, Live retail, how do you determine the sense or nonsense of technology for Live retail design?

I think there are a few constraints or ‘truths’ we already heard before: technology should be non-intrusive; technology should facilitate the buying process; it should make our (retailer and consumer) lives easier, and last but not least, it should make the shopping experience personal. The last one is my favorite. Use technology (i.e. AI, data mining,..) to make ones shopping experience personal. First steps into this direction are quite simple, and possible for every retailer using the data loyalty cards offer. Let me give an example of a retailer today doing this very well and plain simple: MINI. My MINI writes to me. He (yes, my MINI is a ‘he’ to me, the personification MINI intended worked) writes me when he want’s my attention because he needs new oil, or maintenance. He writes to me when he wants new wheels or rims. And the nice thing is that he always does that right on time. This is just a result of using data that is already there in a creative way.

Now let’s go back to the AmazonGo example. Today, Amazon is probably the smartest and largest company that knows their customers best. They maybe even know there customers better then they know themselves. This power and knowledge should not be underestimated because everything they do, every move they make is based on that knowledge. When Amazon opens a bookstore, every book that is in store is relevant because they know which books are popular by knowing their customers. When Amazon decides to buy or lease an airplane they do so because they know their customers want quicker delivery and they know they can do better. When Amazon launched AmazonGo, it knew that easy, no waiting in line check-outs would increase efficiency. So Amazon uses data, develops technology to make stores and the shopping experience that are relevant on the one hand, and efficient on the other. Being relevant is a big issue today in the oversaturated market of products and brands.

Are these two examples of shopping experiences authentic as Live retail should be? No probably not, because I do believe when speaking of authentic, you need personal interaction. That is where technology kicks in, if any functional, logistic or basic interactions of the buying process can be supported by technology the personnel has much more time to interact with the customers. A nice example can be found in Antwerp: De Apothekers. By using technology (robot that will get the medicine after scanning the prescription), the pharmacist really has the time to speak with his patients. And due to the leaving out of a desk standing between pharmacist and patient, there is also no physical barrier anymore. Now this is very basic and low tech example. De Apothekers can, with today’s technology, know who is coming in. With beacons and the Apple watch for example, the retailer gets informed on his watch (which is less intrusive or obvious that a tablet or smartphone) on who (his/her name, being history, specific taste, preferences, etc.) is entering the store, enabling the retailer to again really interact with that person.

If you want to create a truly authentic experience, you should go for WE experiences rather than ME experiences, as Peter Decuypere talks about in his book ‘Holy trinity events’. If you give people an excuse to interact with each other, they will. Peter gives his recently experienced WE experience as an example. It goes about a lady in a supermarket who was extremely slow in unloading and packing her groceries. Peter got really annoyed and impatient. The lady behind the cash register noticed Peters mood and, brightly enough, she responded to this with the offer of the many stamps the lady would receive due to her large ticket price, which she indicated not to collect, to Peter, who did collect them in order to get a wok. Moreover, she indicated she was not allowed to give them to Peter, but that the lady should give them to Peter herself. At that point the WE experience was created. Peter received 200 euro worth of stamps of the lady, who also got the opportunity to apologize to him for being so slow. And Peter’s happiness could not be larger, because all of a sudden his stamp card was full and he could get the wok he was saving for. That wok is now a product with a story and every time he uses it, he thinks back to the lady, but also to the retailer and the lady behind the cash desk. While this example is an incidental WE experience, with the help of technology, you could make a habit of such experiences by simply using the data you have about your customers.

One last statement I want to quote is the one of Cedric Price saying “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”. So do not use technology for technologies sake, but to make our lives simpler or to add more fun, without falling in the gadget-trap, and to design Live retail.