Why Bringing Digital Into Stores Won’t Work And How To Prevent That Outcome

How To Make In-Store Technology Successful

Solve A Real And Specific Problem

The biggest mistake I see in store technology implementations is a “build it and they will come” mentality. Or one that is overly focused on driving sales. Don’t get me wrong – the main objective of in-store activity should be to drive sales. The store is where 90% of sales are transacted, and anything that takes focus away from that risks jeopardizing a business model that is already stressed.

But if your objective for an in-store technology implementation is “to make it easier for consumers to buy stuff” then you’re off to a bad start. The in-store problems that need to be solved need to be specific. For example, in the last few years, retailers have been putting technology into store associates’ hands – tablets, phablets, phones, iPods, whatever. The problem they were trying to solve: consumers with their smartphones walk into stores knowing more than store associates and we need to give employees something that helps at least even the balance.

When that technology implementation provides access to the company’s eCommerce site, and maybe a little back-end information like inventory visibility, then yes, that’s about what you should expect: something close to parity. I wouldn’t call that “problem solved” but at least it helps. Why not full credit? Because consumers can still self-service their way through that issue. Why do you need a store associate if you can get the same information off your phone?

And this is why “selling more stuff” is a miserable, useless “problem” to solve. Why do I need to use the kiosk if I can get the same information off my phone? Sure, some people will indeed use the kiosk, either because their phone’s battery is low or their kid is already playing on it, or it’s just easier to do that than fish through the purse to find the phone to begin with. But is this a compelling strategy behind a kiosk implementation? No. Will that kiosk implementation end up fading away? Yes. Because customers don’t need an “easier” way to buy stuff in stores. They need help, solving specific problems.

What counts as a specific problem, then? How about, “why is this product priced higher than that one?” Or, “how do you use this once you get it home?” Or, “what kind of top would go best with this skirt?” Or, even better, it would be great if people looking to design in-store technology solutions walked a mile in store associates’ shoes and actually identified gaps in the in-store part of the customer journey, and brainstormed about how to fill those gaps. This leads to the second step…

Don’t Be A Hammer Looking For A Nail

I want a future where store associates are “plugged in” as much as the next person. Why? Not for any specific reason except that I intrinsically know this would be better. My phone is an excellent productivity tool. That’s why I’m pretty much addicted to it. I have to think that just about any job could benefit from the easy access to information, reminders, and communication methods that a smartphone can provide, including store associates.

But it is a big mistake to go into stores with a solution already in mind. Smartphones, giant touchscreens, tablets, whatever – these are all hammers looking for the proverbial nail. Sure, they could also be considered “infrastructure” in the sense that once you roll it out, there is no end to how you might be able to take advantage of it.

This is where in-store tech implementations run into trouble – because they don’t have enough specific value attached to them in the initial phase to make them addictive. Yes, it’s great and helpful that a store associate can now pull up a product’s reviews just like a customer can. But wouldn’t it be even more helpful if the store associate had even more information – stuff the customer doesn’t have access to? Like when the next shipment arrives, or if the reviews have been trending up or down over the last couple of weeks, or the top 3 products that customers by with that item…

The point here is that retailers often shoot too low in phase 1 of tech rollout, trying to justify the “infrastructure” part of the investment, but then don’t follow up fast enough with specific things that solve specific shopping journey gaps. This is why employees set technology down and don’t pick it back up again. They want a hammer, but once you give them a hammer, they better have nails too, or it’s just a waste of a hammer.

Test And Improve Quickly – And Intelligently

A lot of retailers have go-to pilot stores. They use these stores because the people there are tech-friendly and they don’t mind being experimented on. But these tend to be pretty high-performing stores. And the tech solutions that work in those kinds of stores may not work so well in your lowest-performing stores. In-store technology needs to evolve quickly so that employees don’t lose interest. Agile development and all of those quick-hit delivery models are exactly what in-store tech needs, but that only works if users are giving you feedback that is based on realistic working environments. And that means that it should be tested in your best stores, and your worst stores. Because if the same solution can solve problems across that range, then you’re guaranteed success for everyone in the middle.

Testing in poor performing stores is harder, but it’s important because if you are trying to address customer journey gaps, then you have to make sure that the same gaps exist in all your stores. If consumers never get to ask the question “Why is this product priced higher than that one?” because Store 382 is always out of stock on both products, then the assisted selling tool that helps employees answer that question is useless to Store 382. And that is the beginning of the end for that technology, because it just won’t get used. Store 382 has bigger problems than that.

Tech Is Not For Tech’s Sake, But That Goes Triple For Stores

Technology is changing how shoppers shop, and it will change how stores support and operate within shopper journeys. But there is just no room to be messing around in stores. Technology in stores has often felt like a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” exercise, which has led to the bad reputation that in-store technology now has. But we surely know enough about how to define needs and requirements, and build technology solutions, that we can do better by stores than we have so far.

I think the future of the store depends on it.