Putting humanity back into retail stores – then adding technology


I had an extraordinary shopping experience the other day. First I went to the Telstra shop to ask about my contract and get some advice on buying my next phone; I was intercepted by a fellow brandishing a tablet into which he logged the nature of my query and added me to the virtual customer queue. All very smart so far, but then he blew it by telling me they would see me in 40 minutes! That would surely break mall world records for slow customer service in a retail setting. It seems Telstra have employed technology to come up with a system that delivers worse customer service. Not so smart after all.

During my enforced wait, I shopped around for better phone deals – why wouldn’t I? I also dropped into Harvey Norman to buy a small item. I self selected it and took it to the register…where I stood in line for 15 minutes while an inexperienced check out clerk struggled with every purchase ahead of me.

Retail is faltering against the convenience of ecommerce and it’s not hard to see why,  judging by this experience.  The signs of stress are common – empty retail spaces abound and the forums . Customer service has been one of the hot spots in the debate about what retailers can do to maintain relevance in the connected world.

There is an aspect that I think has been left out of this debate: traditional high street strip retailers often had a more personal relationship with their customers, there was a human scale to the whole setup which encouraged distinctiveness and loyalty. My feeling is that all that went out with the Mall-induced commoditisation of retailing precincts. Personal service was lost and when the store staff were moved into the boxlike tenancies inside Westfiled, they lost their incentive to reach out on an individual level to customers, and vice-versa. So when ecommerce came along and offered even more convenience than the Mall,  the dramatically reduced levels of personal service and connection that the consumer was already experiencing inside the echoing artificial voids of Westfield meant they were going to lose little by moving their custom across to the new channel. That which COULD have provided the reason to stay with conventional retail, had already been considered unimportant by the mall-fuelled behemoths such as Harvey Norman who suddenly, in the face of brilliant new cross-channel retailers like Apple, look frighteningly clumsy and outmoded. . .  whilst focussing so hard on supply-chain improvements and cookie cutter store ops, the big chains seem to have forgotten so much of what drives human behaviour.

Is it any coincidence that Apple stores are popping up on the high street and not in the Mall? My prediction is that new (bricks and mortar) retail might look much more like old retail, with personal shopping experience back at the fore and even small strip-based specialists seeing a revival….the big difference being that in-store technologies will be helping to provide that personally tailored interactive (and fun!!) shopping experience…and in many cases ecommerce will be integrated into the process – yes, in the store itself.

post-script: should retailers invest more in customer service staff? Sure they should, but they can’t afford to. Australian retail  rents remain unsustainably high – one recent report found that it’s more expensive to rent a shop in prime Sydney CBD than on Paris’ Champs Elysees. The irony is that by raising rents too high, retail landlords are destroying the goose that lays to golden egg.

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2 Responses to “Putting humanity back into retail stores – then adding technology”

  1. Agree strongly as have had similar retail experiences. Have also sold my Westfield shares…..
    So did Telstra come through in the end or had you purchased online and having a cuppa by the time they got back to you?

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