Shopping Goes High-Tech

Wal-Mart’s aggressive efforts to implement RFID makes the news frequently, and you’ve probably noticed an increase in the number of stores offering self-checkout (Home Depot, Rainbow Foods, K-mart, among others). A number of other stores are experimenting other technologies poised to changed the shopping experience.

The Salisbury Post has an excellent article on Bloom, the new store concept from Food Lion.

Consider the technological changes, such as photo printing kiosks, complete with Bluetooth wireless capabilities, and personal scanners that shoppers can use to keep a running tally of what you’re buying.

Other information areas allow you to do things like scan in a cut of meat or piece of seafood and have a variety of recipes pop up that you can print out and take with you.

Their focus is on making grocery shopping better:

“We want people to feel like they’ve had a good experience.” – Robert Canipe, VP Business Stragety

“…take the pain points out of shopping” – Suzy McIntosh-Hinson, Bloom’s IT Design Lead.

A number of the experimental technologies at Bloom can also be found at the Metro Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany.

The last line in the article…

“There will always be certain areas where customers will not accept a high-technology store”.

…leads me to Stores.org’s May 5 cover story, Prada’s Pratfall. The article describes Prada’s retail technology experimentation gone horribly wrong at their very visible Manhanttan flagship store.

RFID, interactive touch screens, liquid crystal changing room doors all back-firing when they’re functional at all.

Made from liquid crystal panels that darken for privacy, the doors were designed to open and close using a foot pedal and shift from clear to opaque with another. But it turns out that some Prada devotees missed the second pedal, revealing more than intended. Others stomped on the pedals in a futile attempt to open doors that frequently jam.

Paula Rosenblum, Director of Retail Research for the Aberdeen Group declares:

“In an attempt to be as chic about technology as they are about heels and handbags, they misjudged the customer’s acceptance as well as the sales associates’ willingness to embrace it.”?

This is an excellent counter to Mr. Canipe’s quote about improving the customer experience. Prada seemed more focused with looking cool than using technology to deepen the customer relationship. Did Prada conduct the depth of customer research described in the grocery store articles? Doubtful. Otherwise they would have realized that customers and sales associates prefer less technology and better service.

Hotel Room as Showroom

Hotels are now leveraging their experience comforting weary travelers and giving their guests the opportunity to take the hotel experience home.

Marginal Revolution points to a Forbes article documenting the Regency in Manhattan’s addition of price tags to their bath mats, pillows, and bath robes.

In a related development, Selelect Comfort recently announced a partnership with Carlson Hotels to replace 90,000 guest beds over the next 2 years with a custom-designed Sleep Number Bed.

As much as it’s a excellent way for “consumers to get a better night’s sleep away from home” it’s also a great way for consumer to have more experience with Select Comfort’s products. With the lifetime of matresses in the decades, capturing one more household is definitely benefical.

Defining On-Stage & Off-Stage

On-stage; where employees are likely to bump into customer.
Off-stage; where they are not.

It’s one of my favorite ideas from The Experience Economy is that of on-stage and off-stage.

Preventing off-stage behavior from occuring on-stage is the key to a good customer experience.

My wife has a recent example of where the two collided for a poor customer experience:

The Starbucks was busy when I got there. As I was standing in line, I overheard the barista on the phone:

“It’s real busy right now, I know I scheduled you for 6pm, can you get here by 4?….Hey, I don’t need that kind of attitude from you – especially over the phone.”

She hangs up, turns to me and smiles, “How may I help you?”

How large is “on-stage”? Big. Pine and Gilmore relay Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn’s advise that law counselors to drive minivans because, “You never know when a juror is going to see you getting in or out of your car.”

UPDATE: Perception Analyzer has also noticed inconsistencies in the Starbucks experience.

Collaborative Technologies at Work – Bottom Up Productivity

Corporate IT departments consider new collaborative technologies (Wikis, Weblogs, Instant Messaging) as rogue elements to be eliminated. When in fact, they are increase productivity.

Ross Mayfield points to this eWeek article describing one organization’s battle with its own people.

The most recent problems came to light when a network failure cut off e-mail and Web access throughout the company’s far-flung operations.

Instead of simply calling it a day, creative employees quickly implemented workarounds. One group installed a quick and dirty Wiki to enable team communications.

Another took advantage of America Online Inc.’s Instant Messenger application to route files and messages between geographically remote employees. Others used Web e-mail and wireless networking to keep the company’s business flowing.

The CIO’s response was predictable: He moved quickly to lock down corporate desktops and laptops to prohibit users from installing unapproved software or accessing unsupported Web services.

New technologies are not without risk, but by eliminating homegrown productivity innovations Corporate IT departments themselves risk being considering irrelevant – thereby increasing constituents finding their own unsupported solutions.

A Best-ter Buy. Part 2

Updating the stores to appeal to a specific customer segment is great, Best Buy goes the extra mile in this renovation and makes sales more visible to staff.

Employees begin their day by reviewing the previous day’s figures, which are written on a dry-erase board and compared to the previous month. At a Westminster store meeting open to the media, Chris Smith, an operating supervisor, pointed out that the store had $550 in overtime costs the previous day, and asked employees to suggest ways to reduce it.

SF Gate has a great follow up on my earlier Best Buy persona post

Over the next few years, each of Best Buy’s 608 stores will focus on one or two of the five segments, with 110 stores scheduled to make the switch by February.

There are two interesting points here:

  1. Starting each day reviewing sales figures with the staff
  2. Looking for improvement from the people with day-to-day knowledge

Like a page out of James Womack’s Lean Thinking. These two points reinforce Womack’s patterns of “visual controls leading to continuous improvement” and “asking for improvements from the people on the front-line leads to a continued commitment”.

Best of Luck to Best Buy.

Our Business is Culture

A couple years back, Wal-Mart decided to sell toys…cheap. Toys R Us knew they couldn’t compete on price, so they decided to compete on experience – thereby increasing their margin.

Experience is a more sustainable advantage than price, selection, or service. It’s much closer tied to your brand reputation than any of the other attributes. Starbucks’ Brand Experience allows it to sell custom CDs in-store. Disney’s Brand Experience allows them to put their name on everything from clothing to cruise ships. By articulating your identity outside of your current product or service offering, opportunities to create a holistic, margin-widening, experience for your customers will present themselves.

Outsourcing to Nebraska

Sending those jobs to India would cut the costs even more, to maybe $10 an hour in wages and overhead. But JetBlue thinks the better service from home agents offsets that price advantage, notwithstanding the occasional barking dog in the background.

His [David Neeleman, the discount carrier’s chief] motivation was mainly to make agents happy, the theory being that happy workers sound better on the phone than morose ones.

Some of the clients we’ve worked with have call centers in North Dakota handling their customer inquiries and concerns. The exerpts above are from The Slipper Solution at Forbes.com outlines discount air maverick JetBlue’s call-center strategy – call-center employees work from home.

First, cost-cutting eventually cuts service quality and brand reputation. Two things JetBlue should be averse to compromising. Secondly, happy employees make for happy customers. The relationship front-line employees have with customers is reflective of the employer-employee relationship. That’s why Working Pathway’s focuses on improving the employee experience.

A Polite Response is Reciprocal

Recently, I’ve noticed an impolite practice from some of our vendors. When you connect with a person in customer service, this is the initial exchange

“Hello, I’m Steve. May I have your account number?”

Rather asking me to reciprocate and introduce myself – as is a common and expected practice in our culture – they immediately ask for information I’m unfamiliar with, frequently not ready to recite, and may not be relevant to the forthcoming conversation.

Then they ask for my name.

From my perspective – the customer – this starts the conversation off disrespectfully. By simply flipping the order of the statements, a more polite, customer-sensitive interaction is promoted. I submit:

“Hello, my name is Steve. Who am I speaking with?”

“Hi Steve, this is Garrick Van Buren.”

“Mr. Van Buren how may I assist you?”

“Steve, I’d like to update my billing address.”

“I can assist you with that. To start, may I have your account number?”

This is the customer service equivelant of small talk, same as talk radio callers starting with “thanks for taking my call”. These statements act as a buffer, setting the expectations for the upcoming interaction, and getting both parties on equal footing. Without them, we’re worse than machines, for even computers have handshakes.

As you go about your day, be conscious of the small communications that start up successful transations: a smile, eye contact, a simple “How are you?/Well Thank you.” These are simple tools here to make our every day easier.

A Best-ter Buy

Yesterday the Strib announced Best Buy’s new customer personas. According to the article, $50 million is dog-eared for reformatting 100 stores to improve the shopping experience of these 5 archetypes.

It seems to me that Ray, Barry, and Buzz already love shopping at Best Buy. Jill on the other hand, can’t stand the place. Perhaps the biggest win is Best Buy formally acknowledging Jill’s aversion to their stores.

The article reads as if prototype stores will be created to specifically focus on these archetypes. An interesting proposition – a $50,000 facelift per store to focus on developing a better relationship with a handful of customer archetypes. It’s that kind of commitment that will drive customer loyalty.

Customer in Training

While a number of supermarkets and discount stores offer “customer-in-training” shopping cart as their primary method of keeping children occupied while their parents shop, Wegmans – a Woodbridge, N.J. supermarket chain – goes one step further offering W Kids Childcare centers .

The videos, toys, and playground equipment found at these centers is part of a larger effort to improve the parent’s shopping experience. Other initiatives include: check-out aisles without candy and changing booths in both the men’s and women’s restrooms. Because of this, Child magazine declared Wegmans the most ‘Family-Friendly’ chain in America.

Improving the customer experience often has little to do with the primary service or product offering, but more with successfully managing our interpersonal relationships.

UPDATE: Marginal Revolution has an excellent article on the experience of shopping at Wegman’s.