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What Neiman Marcus gets about retail technology

4 min read

Brands & Campaigns

Do you ever get the sense that retail technology is overhyped?

Personally, I love it. In my career, I have overseen technology roll-outs at thousands of high-touch retail stores nationwide. I have also consulted with major retailers and automakers on a raft of tech-related projects.

But let’s take a moment to get real about the role of technology in retail.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I often see is the tendency to apply new technology to old techniques. We all feel comfortable sticking with known commodities — the approaches that have generally worked for years or even decades. All too often, the Web and ad agencies with which retailers have existing RFPs and retainers find it easier to rely on status-quo methods. This leads to shortcuts along the lines of, “We already paid $XX,XXX to create that message for the end cap, so let’s just make that show up on someone’s phone, too.” Or, “Make sure to tweet about that new (brand/product/feature).”

Tweeting might seem advanced, but if you think about it, it’s really a one-way communication — the equivalent of taking out a newspaper ad. Likewise, push text messages are hardly different from those pesky hawkers on the street who try to stuff random flyers in your hand. Some would even have retailers step into the role of an omniscient Big Brother by tracking customers’ always-on cellphone signals and automatically texting a coupon within a certain radius.

Truth is, most people find this kind of thing irritating… and a little creepy.

Retail technology is useful only insofar as it sparks meaningful conversations with and among consumers. If the technique in question won’t feel authentic and humanized on the receiving end, is it worth adopting? If it doesn’t involve listening and learning on both sides, is it really cutting edge?

The real promise of retail technology is its ability to facilitate meaningful two-way interactions in a variety of channels, both digitally and in real life.

So what does that look like? For starters, you don’t need to spend $1 billion on holograms and virtual-reality headsets. A simple tablet will do. What’s important is how you use the tools at your disposal. Let’s say you’re a retailer of high-end, modern furniture. A customer wants to know what that svelte sofa would look like in lime green. She also wants to see it in a living room that has pastel-yellow walls just like hers. The salesperson can now use the tablet to show the customer a digital mockup of exactly what she has imagined. In this scenario, the salesperson can offer to enhance the mockup with coffee tables, lamps, ottomans, etc., because the pitch is taking place as part of a two-way exchange that is willingly entered into by the customer.

Neiman Marcus, for example, rolled out a shoe table that “listens” to customers in a novel way. When the customer picks up a shoe to examine it, a video rolls on the table showing a model striding down the runway in those flats or pumps. The customer thereby gains information both visually and, by holding the shoe, through touch. She has made a closer connection to the product, and the retailer learns about this connection because, upon activation, the sales staff learned precisely which shoe had piqued the shopper’s interest. The moment that video rolled, a legitimate reason for the salesperson to engage the customer in further conversation was presented.

The two-way nature of this is important, because when people feel listened to, they want to extend the dialog rather than walk out of the store. This is why retailers such as Apple, Nordstrom and AT&T were smart to bring point-of-sale out from behind the counter and into the workspace. The conversation just flowed. At AT&T, the goal is to inject learning into these interactions. “You have a new Audi A3?” the salesperson says. “That’s cool. Did you know those cars have wireless-hotspot functionality? It can save your family a ton of data.” Yes, the tablet has a quick video showing how AT&T’s hotspot plan works, but it’s only effective because customer interest was piqued by a personal conversation.

So why not just rely on status-quo methods? Because attitudes are changing. Today, consumers want to be in charge of the buying process. They want to have conversations with brands and with each other. So forget about “pushing” content down a one-way street. Instead, let your customers take the wheel with you right by their side.

Andy Austin is group director of experience technology at brand agency CBX.