Some time ago, I came across this article heralding the future of retail in Australia (and, by extension, the Western developed world). I've thought about it many times since because it's based on a premise that I see repeated time and time again in discussions about how shopping patterns - and shops themselves - are evolving. This premise is the seemingly pervasive fear that e-commerce is in the process of rendering bricks and mortar shopping obsolete... and that the only way traditional store can hope to compete is by becoming more... well... bionic.
“Technology is moving back into the store with savvy retailers now considering ways they can excite their customers through automating more of the shopping process... Think scan a barcode and go, using gesture browsing on interactive screens, providing Google Glass to store assistants and offering geolocation services for time-poor customers.”
— MARKETINGING MAGAZINE
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the intersections between traditional and digital retail spaces, I can't help thinking that this vision of a brave new shopping world seriously misses the mark. And that's good news for small retail businesses who don't have the budgets to outfit their sales team with Google Glasses!
It's true that high street stores need to find creative ways to evolve as customers' expectations around personalisation and convenience are reshaped by their internet informed world. But I don't believe our goal should be simply to make physical stores feel more like 'the internet' in order to justify their continued existence. In fact, I believe that truly savvy retailers understand that the absolute opposite is true.
In my experience of running a bricks and mortar independent design store, I found that the majority of shoppers came through the doors for the pleasure of browsing. Buying is something we like do with our friends, or to give us a break in an otherwise busy week. Shopping is a way to enjoy some downtime, a chance to have a friendly chat, and to experience a place we find aesthetically inspiring and uplifting.
If as a shop owner you can deliver this kind of positive experience, these browsers will be psychologically primed to become customers.
Most of the people who entered my shop had already experienced the brand online, by browsing our website or following our social media. They knew what to expect on our shelves - they'd done their preliminary research and were genuinely interested in the stories behind the products or brands they already had decided were beautiful. The fact that our online presence had already educated them about what we had to offer meant that our job in the real world was to strengthen an emotional connection to a maker's story, to the nostalgia inherent in a particular design, or simply to the experience of being in a shop that feels so lovely they want to bring a piece of it home.
These points are important to keep in mind now, in late summer, as we do our best to take advantage of the opportunities presented by relaxed shoppers on their summer vacations, and as we begin preparing for the end of year holiday season. These A-typical holiday shoppers are looking for distinct and meaningful gifts for their loved ones... including themselves! If your business it set up in a place where people go to play, they're out in droves right now, trying to buy items that symbolise how they feel about where they are, the fun they're having, or to thank someone for hosting them on their vacation.
And I'm just not convinced that Goggle glasses and automated touch screen browsing is the most direct route into their hearts or their wallets. Instead of automating the shopping experience, we should think of ways to make it more connective and more human. Rather than focusing on selling things based on their specs, focus instead on promoting in words, photos, and especially on your website the aspects of your products that give them real, heart-felt meaning to people.