Amazon has been occupying the minds of retailers (and especially wireless retailers) lately, with its popular Kindle Fire tablets, its controversial Price Check App (which enables showrooming), and its recent brick-and-mortar ambitions.
Two weeks ago (Feb. 15), tech blogger Chris Devore wrote a blog post that should reassure many retailers. After all, he was identifying the most obvious way to defeat Amazon; he was pointing out the company's greatest weakness: "Amazon's Achilles Heel."
Devore first explains that he is an avid Amazon fan and buys from Amazon.com all the time. "But," he writes, "the company has 'bad interface' -- they always deliver the goods, but there's no human warmth in the interation."
Devore says Amazon doesn't make you feel anything at all and, as it turns out, the lack of human interaction is by design.
He quotes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who told Wired, after acquiring the famously human and friendly Zappos, "We like (Zappos') unique culture, but we don't want that culture at Amazon. We like our culture, too. Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which a customer doesn't want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect."
Indeed, some customers prefer a fast checkout with zero human interaction. Others, on the other hand, want to speak to somebody and ask a few questions before they buy.
For the latter group, the advantage to shopping in-store over shopping online is obvious. The store is the only channel that allows consumers to connect with the brand and the full customer experience: product, service, staff and location. Most importantly, they can leave the store with a product in hand. (For more on the in-store experience, check out Alen Puaca's 5-part Designing the Next Generation of Retail Places article series.)
The physical store allows customers to connect with products on a sensory level. Imagine last time you walked into a good bookstore in your neighborhood. The warm lighting, the music, and the coffee smell, made you feel warm, relax and cozy. You smelled the paper and ink around you. The scent that aroused your curiosity and reminds you of your childhood (when your parents took you to the book store).
Beyond the sensory experience, there is the opportunity for face-to-face customer service. If you have a question, instead of searching through a bunch of websites, you could just turn around and ask a salesperson (who loves reading as much as you do). You chat about books you like and the salesperson recommends books he/she thought would suit your taste. Before you know it, you've walked out of the store satisfied with a new book in hand.
A great in-store experience can be very powerful. When the retailers do it right, they can create a lasting and memorable experience that will trigger brand loyalty, and entice customers to keep coming back to the store.
Despite what Amazon says, they know that human and physical interactions are keys to connecting with consumers -- which is why they, too, are launching physical stores of their own.
In his book Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping, Paco Underhill writes, "The price we pay for convenience, one-click shopping and a ritualized retail experience is that no one recognizably human sits at the other end of our Amazon transactions -- just a seamlessly calibrated database of emails that roll towards our inboxes."
Because some customers avoid human contact in-store, while others welcome it, a next-generation customer experience should be a hybridized one. Technology takes elements of the online (and in many cases, mobile) shopping experience and brings them into the store in a number of forms: price-comparison apps, online product reviews, social media, customer loyalty apps like ShopKick, and interactive retail solutions like XQ, the platform we're buiding here at iQmetrix.
This new type of experience -- an omnichannel experience -- combines technology and physical interaction to connect with customers on several channels at once.
In effect, the customer can opt for a self-service, technology-enabled experience (not unlike the one offered on Amazon.com) or choose to be helped by a salesperson... or both.