Daily Dose of iQ: Virtual Greeter at The Bay. Fair or foul?

Feb 22, 2012 — Tara Bartlett

Visitors to the Bay's flagship Toronto store may be surprised to be greeted not by a salesperson, but by Anna, a life-size virtual greeter projected on a glass panel within the store.

"The department store’s test of the svelte virtual employee, whose talking is prompted by sensors in the ceiling when people approach her, is among an array of high-tech initiatives that retailers are starting to embrace to help cut costs and pump up business," wrote Marina Strauss of the Globe and Mail (Feb. 20).

Anna may seem gimmicky, but whether it's a virtual sales greeter or a self-serve kiosk, new retail technologies are providing new opportunities for customer engagement and entertainment.

Especially in a department store or big-box scenario -- where it is often tough to find a salesperson to help you -- a virtual sales greeter can pull customers into targeted product areas where retailers want to focus customers' attention.

As Alison Coville, a senior vice-president at the Bay, points out in the article, “It’s really more of a marketing tool than anything else.” It’s drawing attention to high-margin products and giving customers the option for self-service. Because the virtual sales greeters are still quite rare, they are also buzz worthy. They create positive of word-of-mouth and help boost walk-in traffic. 

Coville says she expects the system can lift sales 10 to 15 percent in the gift section, while also encouraging shoppers to head to other departments of the store: “We’re investigating, like all retailers, what’s next for us. We’re always looking for what’s the next evolution... Anna is there to stop you. It’s intriguing when you see this attractive woman.”

E-commerce efficiency and in-store retail: Giving customers what they want, quickly

A recent report from The E-tailing Group has found that because consumers are generally in a hurry, retailers must find ways to enable "easy in/easy out" shopping, reports Zak Stambor of Internet Retailer (Feb. 21).

Knowing your customer better than they know themselves is an increasing competitive edge in the retail industry. Many leading online retailers offer intelligent e-commerce features that suggest and select products for consumers based on previous purchases, style and likes -- saving consumers time spent searching for compatible products.

Features like ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ made famous by Amazon make online shopping a hassle-free and enjoyable experience. With intelligent e-commerce and location-based marketing services, consumers no longer have to put as much time or effort into searching for products. The right product offers find them at the right time and make it easy to purchase.

Social media also plays a huge role in the efficiency of online shopping. Giving consumers the ability to like, share and recommend products through Facebook and Twitter is crucial for online retailers. Nothing is a stronger purchase influencer than a recommendation and rave review by a family member or friend.

But it's not all about robots and rapid self-service: The need for a human connection

Branding expert and bestselling author Martin Lindstrom wrote a Fast Company column today extolling the enduring virtues of human interaction in sales and marketing. "As the world becomes increasingly digital, we are losing many sensory signals that once moved us," he writes.

Every customer has his/her own unique shopping preferences. Some avoid human contact at all possible lengths, and some prefer to only deal with a real, live person.

Overall, a balanced approach between technology and people is best. Most consumers are looking for a shopping experience that combines the perks of online shopping (primarily convenience and access to in-depth product and pricing information) with the benefits of brick-and-mortar (being able to touch and try the product, interact with staff to learn more about the product, get opinions, etc).

Especially with big ticket items such as consumer electronics, consumers want to test the product out first-hand. It’s tough to judge the picture quality of a TV or the ease-of-use of a smartphone through images and descriptions on a website, for example. But to prevent "showrooming," retailers need to engage consumers in the store, give them access to the product information they need and offer additional value with friendly, knowledgeable sales staff providing expertise and education on how to use the product.

Human customer service isn’t going away as a differentiator in retail and neither are retail technologies like self-serve kiosks and virtual sales people. The ultimate retail experience is one that combines both aspects, providing the value and efficiency customers want.

Topics: Retail Operations, Wireless Trends, Mobile Industry, Customer Experience, e-Commerce, Retail Marketing

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