Usually when someone is drowning they'll grab hold of anything they can find to keep their heads above water. Not some retailers.
It's become almost a boring platitude within the retail industry that a superior in-store experience will rescue the physical store from oblivion. Oddly suicidal then that so many retailers with stores are spurning their life rafts by offering customer service that borders on slapping consumers in the face.
A new survey released in the US by Motorola has found that the number of shoppers who prefer to rely on their own mobile devices, rather than shop assistants, to guide their purchasing decisions has reached a level that for retailers can only be described as embarrassing.
Two facts in particular stemming from the research suggest that retailers have simply run up the white flag on customer service.
First, the reliance on mobile devices is strongly and inversely related to age, with almost half of Millennials (also known as Gen Ys) and more than one-third of Gen X shoppers saying it's easier to find information on their mobile devices than from a store associate. Since the Millennials are gradually overtaking baby boomers as the biggest consuming group, retailers are in effect just telling their juiciest target group that there really isn't much point in coming to the store after all.
The second interesting fact to come from the Motorola research is that store managers agree - and are actually even more convinced than their customers - that mobile phones provide better information. No less than 61 per cent of managers were of this opinion, up from 51 per cent two years ago.
True, this information shouldn't come as a huge surprise to people who get out a bit. In the weeks before Christmas I was personally treated to a grand demonstration of the way things are going at a consumer electronics superstore at one of Australia's premier shopping centres.
On my shopping list were a mid-end set of earphones and an office printer. Unable to find someone to help me with the former, I made the mistake of asking a sales associate in the computer section nearby. He said to me, and I quote "I don't know [expletive] about earphones." As there was no one for him to pass the buck to, I ended up having to fend for myself.
But when I asked him a few minutes later about printers he was all smiles. He could certainly help me with printers. He came with me to the area where the printers were on display and proceeded to read off the price tags of two low-end machines that happened to be the subject of hot deals. This was not exactly what I had in mind. After all, as the beneficiary of a fairly decent primary school education my ability to read price tags was at least as passable as his.
Besides which, price wasn't really a major consideration. What I really wanted was help comparing the performance specs of a small number of printers so I could hone in on the one I wanted. And for that purpose he was useless. I ended up using my smartphone and making the purchase online.
But perhaps I am missing the point. Maybe expletive-ridden insouciance is what passes for “cool” at some retailers and since this was a successful store they had simply become conditioned not to care. Obviously my couple of hundred bucks was surplus to the retailer's requirements that day.
Motorola also found in its research – somewhat self-servingly but nonetheless confirming other information – that the shopping experience improved when sales associates themselves used mobile technologies.
Digitally-enhanced service is clearly a direction being taken by many leading-edge retailers who are already shifting to mobile checkout and digital technologies that circumvent or supplement humans to impart product information.
The evolution of retailing appears to be heading towards only a limited number of viable retail service models. The first is technology-enabled self-service, with humans being largely phased out of store operations.
The second is extreme “brand ambassadorship” – meaning the Lululemon/Nordstrom/Apple model in which store associates are so highly trained, informed and motivated that they can make customers feel good enough about the experience to make incremental purchases.
For a time there will still be a little room for retailers to sit between these two extremes, perhaps in lower-income markets. But as the Motorola research and our own shopping experiences reconfirm, consumers are losing faith in the ability of retailers to deliver on the promise of human service.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.