Online shopping is eating into physical store visits – that much is obvious if you watch any news bulletin about Black Friday.

Footfall for Black Friday 2016 in the UK was down 0.7% on 2015, according to IPSOS.

Look at the latest ONS retail sales figures (for November 2016), and you’ll see that in the UK, online sales made up 15.8% of total retail sales. That’s almost 25% year-on-year growth.

Does this increasing love for online shopping mean we have fallen out of love with physical stores? I don’t think so.

After all, total retail sales in the UK have seen 43 consecutive months of year-on-year growth. We just love shopping.

That’s why I bristled a little when reading the intro to Capgemini’s recent report about the in-store customer experience. Two sentences struck me as misleading:

Our global survey – spanning 6,000 consumers and 500 retail executives – found that one-third of consumers would rather wash dishes than visit a retail store.

And..

Consumers wish to use technology to help them engage with the store at every step of the shopping journey.

That first stat about washing dishes is a bit of fun, and is even broken down by country (see the graphic below), but it doesn’t tell us how many people see online shopping as a similar chore. I certainly don’t enjoy shopping online for food, or for Amazon stuff that I ‘just need’.

The second assertion about consumers wishing to use tech is absurd. We wish to have problems solved, not just to mess about on an iPad for the sake of it.

washing dishes instead of visiting a store

I know I sound critical, but actually apart from a few of these assertions, it’s a very good study from Capgemini because it highlights some of the areas in which physical stores need to improve.

Coincidentally, many of these areas can be solved with tech, though it is my belief that this tech should very rarely be customer facing.

Where do physical stores need to improve?

Amongst other things, customers want to be able to:

  • check that goods are in stock
  • compare products
  • find products quickly and check out quickly
  • ensure price match with retailer’s online store (including promotions)
  • choose from multiple delivery options
  • earn loyalty points
  • have a good time

The most important points here are logistical, they require the retailer to have one view of stock across stores and warehouses, online and offline. Ecommerce teams cannot be insulated from the retail team.

But I cannot see the need for customer facing tech. It too often becomes a white elephant, much like Marks & Spencer’s ‘Browse & Order’ stations where customers can explore the company website in the middle of the M&S carpet. There are exceptions, of course, which may be appropriate for some retailers, such as self checkouts, and loyalty points being added to a mobile app.

I can certainly see the benefit of using digital technology to empower retail assistants, however. Systems such as SalesAssist, employed by Boots, may allow for stock checks and product comparison to be taken care off by store staff.

This customer relationship with human staff should not be undervalued. One part of Capgemini’s survey asks consumers to compare the effectiveness of an app with the effectiveness of a store, for tasks such as product comparison. Understandably, the app wins on many counts, but the questioning never mentions store assistants.

Yes, an app will quickly give you product information, but the question takes the task in isolation and does not in any way touch on how the best salespeople compare with an app. Surely the best experiences with people go beyond what an app can offer?

app versus store

The report also lists digital shelves / interactive displays that help compare products as an underappreciated way that tech can be useful to the customer. In situations with a limited product offering (car showrooms), maybe this is the case, but I can’t think of too many other stores where such a tool would be a cost effective or elegant solution.

Before I sound too much like a naysayer, it’s worth mentioning Lowe’s and its Lowebot. The autonomous retail assistant that moves around the store and directs customers to products is a great example of exerimentation / innovation and getting around a big DIY warehouse may be indeed be a good use case.

On the whole, however, how much cheaper and more efficient are these robots than staff? Not very, I would wager. Moving robots need maintenance above and beyond a self checkout, and they can’t compliment or joke with a customer.

When I went to Japan recently, I saw a few shops with their very own Pepper, SoftBank’s famous robot. Did Pepper make me want to enter a shop selling shirts and ties? Certainly not.

softbank pepper

What do you think? Leave a comment below.