High-Touch Shopping: Brick & Mortars’ Invaluable Weapon

BentsmithBy Ben T. Smith IV, CEO of Wanderful Media

Shopping is a social activity that, in its earlier incarnations, was a bartering interaction, where negotiation and fairness were expected when trading goods. Later, the fixed store became a meta-gathering place, and then malls provided additional amenities to augment the experience, including restaurants, entertainment and even apartments.

While the buying experience has fundamentally changed in recent years, the most successful brands still understand the power of high-touch interaction. High-touch has previously been defined as personal, face-to-face customer service, but the addition of technology changes that definition. The future of brick and mortars is an immersive, interactive digital experience that weaves technology into the everyday shopping experience.

The high-touch shopping journey begins with the serendipitous discovery of goods through advertising, an array of products on a tablet or recommendations from friends on social media, leading to a trip to the local store. Once inside the store, technology enhances the shopping experience, from the use of a mobile phone to navigate through a store, to sales associates checking prices and completing sales on their tablets. Smart brands are touching the customer in many different ways and at many different points in the journey.

There’s been a lot of conjecture lately that e-commerce will crush the retail stores. In a Pando Daily interview, Marc Andreessen predicted the death of traditional retail, and is quoted as saying, “Retail guys are going to go out of business and e-commerce will become the place everyone buys. You are not going to have a choice.” This completely underplays the importance of brick and mortar shops as social centers, something that can’t be replaced by the Internet machine.

Positioned against the e-commerce hype, traditional brick and mortar retailers still own the majority of shopping activity. Forrester Research reported in 2012 that online retail sales topped $200 billion for the first time, yet this represents less than 10 percent of total U.S retail sales.

In a recent blog post, Reid Hoffman states that software will not replace all offline retail, but will be used instead to transform specific offline retail experiences. The ascendance of mobile technology drives this point even further. If there is any proof needed that brick and mortar retail is here to stay and that high-touch shopping is effective, one just needs to look at the Apple Retail Store. As Carmine Gallo, author of The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty, illustrated in a presentation, the secret to Apple’s success is not the store design, but “the soul of Apple is its people; how they are hired, trained, motivated, and taught to communicate with customers to create magical experiences.” Armed with mobile devices for questions they can’t answer, knowledgeable sales associates provide personalized customer service, using technology to cater to the needs of each customer.

Here are additional examples of high-touch shopping in action:

  • According to Mobile Commerce Daily, at the 2013 Mobile Marketing Association Forum San Francisco, a Lowe’s representative said the home improvement store has rolled out more than 42,000 in-store iPhones to help associates connect with shoppers. Using an app, associates help users find more information about in-store products. The home improvement stores are also trialing mobile point-of-sale, where associates print receipts or send them via SMS or email.
  • There are a variety of mobile apps that make shopping easier for consumers. For example, Shopkick, gives shoppers rewards and offers by simply walking into stores. Branded apps do great things in the hands of customers as well. The Safeway Just for U app helps shoppers get personalized coupons, find weekly savings and locate the nearest store.
  • The branded apps from retailers such as Walmart, Walgreens, Target and Home Depot, feature in-store maps with exact product locations and the most efficient routes through the store to fulfill a shopping list.
  • When users open the Walmart app inside a store, they are prompted to enter the In-Store Mode to see features and content that is specific to that store, including price check. During Thanksgiving weekend, Walmart included an interactive store map enabling customers to click on items from the Black Friday circular and see where they are located, a price and item description.

Ultimately the consumer makes the decision about where and how they shop. Recent data by Dimensional Research revealed that 91 percent of technology savvy consumers have gone to a physical store to shop as a result of an online experience such as an email promotion, online coupon or digital circular. Respondents who prefer to shop in a physical store cited getting answers to questions, seeing the item before purchase, ease of making a return and merchant relationships as the top drivers. All of these areas support the value that high-touch shopping delivers to the retail industry.

The value of high-touch not only involves personal, face-to-face customer service, but also engages the shopper using technology both inside and outside the store by applying the right set of tools at each point in the shopping journey. Smart retailers who implement high touch shopping will continue to deliver value to shoppers, and an experience e-commerce can never do alone. The combination of the online and offline high-touch experience creates a strong emotional bond with consumers, and significantly enhances both the overall shopping experience and customer loyalty.

Ben T. Smith, IV is CEO of Wanderful Media, a startup focused on reinventing online discovery shopping with a social experience. He is also a Venture Partner at Accelerator Ventures and co-founder of MerchantCircle.com and Spoke.com. Ben blogs at btsiv.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @bentsmithfour.