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Retail Trends: The human touch - getting the balance right for customers and brands

Sean Crawford, Client Development Director at Threefold comments on the latest news and trends within the world of retail.

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Written by Sean Crawford on 15 Apr, 2019

It was announced recently that Aldi have become the latest retailer to trial self-serve checkouts to offer shoppers ‘a quick and simple experience’ instead of the traditional supermarket queue. With Lidl having already rolled out the technology to 150 of its UK stores, it’s no surprise Aldi appear to be following suit.

In an era of increasing people costs, high rents and the demand for a quick and pain free shopping experience, retailers are often looking to technology to keep up with their competitors.

But with this move to embracing technology, there is a risk for retailers, brands and shoppers that the human differentiator (which can ultimately ‘make or break’ the shopping experience) quickly disappear.

To encourage shoppers to head out to the high street, retailers are looking at every opportunity to set themselves apart from their online competitors. The opportunity to therefore speak to someone ‘in the know’ from a shopper perspective, whether on the shop floor or at the checkout, is crucial for retailers as they look to clinch a sale.

In light of this, Alex Baldock, CEO of Carphone Dixons, recently announced a £200M drive to invest in store staff training to empower them to be product experts and turn its stores into “palaces of discovery”.

Over at Boots, CEO Sebastian James is promising “radical, radical change” to redress a situation where he believes Boots have fallen behind the curve. Their ambition is to be global leaders in the beauty hall, taking on high-end retailers Selfridges and online specialists They aim to create ‘a beauty playground’ by introducing beauty specialists with in-depth knowledge across all categories and brands. In the same way as beauty editors and bloggers, the specialists will host masterclasses and give unbiased advice across all brands (from affordable to premium). All the beauty specialists will be required to take an immersive training programme, where they will learn how to connect with the shopper beyond purchasing a product, and instead get a better understanding of why they are shopping for this product or brand in the first place.

And of course, John Lewis and Waitrose have put ‘& Partners’ at the heart of their business, re-branding to emphasise their focus on outstanding service, because for them, ‘‘it’s personal’’. Not only will both stores introduce ‘customer service ambassadors’, who will provide a concierge-style service and health experts, but John Lewis has also launched a gifting collection where most pieces were created by staff.

Although an online platform, ASOS are retail-leaders when it comes to leveraging their customers and staff to create that all important ‘peer-to-peer stylist’. Rather than solely focusing on celebrity or blogger influencers, ASOS create content through the expertise of their shoppers. This was demonstrated a few years back with their #asseenonme campaign, which gave customers the opportunity to appear on ASOS’ product page if they uploaded an image on social media of them wearing their ASOS purchase. In addition to this, they’ve continued to invest heavily in developing chatbot technology that re-creates the experience of having a personal shopper online. “Enki’, their ‘fashionbot’ service offers a very interactive experience for customers, prompting users to take further action rather than just delivering results with recommended items of clothing. You can add items to your ‘shortlist’ or click ‘you might also like’ to see other similar examples. This makes the app feel more human, one that actively searches for items on your behalf and delivering a far more focused set of search results.

This push by retailers to leverage ‘people’ is crucial for brands looking to communicate with shoppers in an ever-crowded media environment. If done right, brands will harness the power of retail employees to better sell their products, and heavily rely on them to increase conversion, as they are being advised, interacted-with and guided across that all-important path to purchase.