Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Digital retailing design ideas from VMSD

VMSD (formerly VisualStore) published an article a few days ago spotlighting some of the more interesting and certainly more striking digital retailing concepts that I've seen so far. By far my favorite is that for Postbank, who really hit a home run with their clean, contemporary and very high-tech looking design (pictured left). As Sean O'Leary, VMSD's technical editor notes, "In the case of Postbank, the implementation of different types of display and interactive technologies is leveraged to create a more 'human' environment," and I'd certainly have to agree with that statement. In today's retail environment where digital solutions are often still tacked-on as an afterthought, Postbank and others have demonstrated that integrating the digital elements (which in this case are entirely functional) directly into the store design can be extremely compelling. This approach certainly beats out those who are still hanging solitary unmodified plasma screens from the rasters or tucking the odd self-service kiosk into some dark corner where nary a customer will venture.

Of course, because Postbank does rely on these kiosks to actually help process customer requests (customers can work unaided in a truly self-service fashion, or can ask the help of one of the branch's bankers and tellers who roam the floor), they have the right motivation to make sure that the devices look friendly and inviting. They're also freed from having to follow the standard format of having a queue area and teller's desks, which gives them a good deal more flexibility with the floor plan.

Bonus points for making the kiosks look like JetBlue's self check-in stations, which in my opinion still set the bar for kiosk design.

Tags: Digital retailing, Postbank, self-service

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Re-thinking retail design to address consumer self-service

A few weeks ago SelfServiceWorld published an article on the "new rules" of retail design. The crux of the argument: "New technologies make it possible, for the first time, to reach those individual customers with individual experiences. Digital signage, self-service — and, perhaps most importantly, the rise of multi-channel retailing — are demanding a new holistic view when it comes to the design of in-store experiences."

As I read through the rest of the article, which talks about retail media, shopper traffic monitoring and even shelving, I couldn't help but think: the rules are still the same. Ever since that first shop keep decided to put a sign outside his door advertising the arrival of fresh produce, biscuit mix or bolts of fabric, the rules have been largely the same. Make the store pleasing to the eye, ensure that shoppers feel comfortable, and (in the US at least), make sure that there's plenty of room to navigate. While there are arguments both for and against making products easy to find and convenient to purchase right away, these are more merchandising questions rather than design ones. Likewise, the addition of digital signage systems and other in-store media augment, not replace, current design considerations.

On the self-service front, there are basically two categories of devices that impact store design. The first are those machines that improve the store experience by making a hard process easier. I'd place self-checkout lanes, price lookup terminals and product information kiosks into this category because each provides shoppers a way to perform a standard in-store action more quickly and with less hassle than before. However, in all of these cases while store design might have to be modified slightly to make optimal use of the technology, they certainly don't require dramatic changes. The second category of self-service devices gives shoppers access to new services that they might not have had before. Loyalty program kiosks and product extension/virtual shopping terminals go here, because these kinds of activities are generally not available otherwise. These technologies have the potential to be quite disruptive when properly integrated into a store's business and design plan, and I could see the case for making significant changes to a store's layout if management thought it would drive business via these devices.

With everybody from Wal-Mart to Victoria's Secret constantly trying out new designs in an effort to improve the in-store experience, it's clear that there's no sure-fire method for winning over customers. Between changing tastes, new and diversified product/service offerings and the fickle nature of shoppers in general, the best we can do is try and keep up with consumer trends while making stores more enjoyable to navigate. While new retail media services can make the shopping experience better and even more fun, to those who have already been exposed to the fine art of store design, I think they're more likely to inspire ideas of evolution rather than revolution.

Tags: store design, retail media, merchandising

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Will digitally-based customer assistance help solve store customer service woes?

That's exactly the question that the latest BrainTrust Query over at Retail Wire is trying to answer, and as usual, the participants in the discussion have some great insights to share. Using examples like Experticity's kiosk-based remote assistance platform, or the 3D avatars employed by some other self-service technology companies, Laura Davis-Taylor posits that there's a need to engage the customer at a point when she is making an active investment in learning about a product/service, which is an important part of the sales process to be sure.

The upside of such programs is that by relying on artificial intelligence and a centralized customer support staff, retailers can lower costs while improving the service experience by being able to instantly access product information, loyalty programs, etc. and tie those into the support process. Of course, the downside is that the human customer is now interacting with a kiosk, and whether there's a human or a computer on the other end of the Internet connection, it's not quite the same as speaking to somebody in-store.

While there are certainly valid arguments to be made on both sides, it seems like this technology, or something reasonably similar, will become a de-facto addition to the retail environment given the dramatic upswing of in-store self-service kiosks (for all sorts of uses), and the advent of more capable mobile devices. A few years from now, it seems like it would be more likely a customer would want to interact with a human being or really smart AI on the other end of their smartphone (a device already optimized for human interaction) rather than a self-contained kiosk. On the other hand, of course, kiosks will always be able to offer more functionality, larger screen real estate, peripherals like printers, and so on, so there's a place for them as well.

Technology aside, though, the success or failure of these services lies with their ability to connect with customers and offer them genuine value. My favorite quote from this Brain Trust survey comes from Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc., who suggests that, ". If the interaction doesn't really feel like talking with a "live" person it should not be presented that way. In many instances, consumers are seeking information and that source doesn't need to be in the form of a personal interaction." Both information and presentation of the information are important inside of a store, and even the most well thought-out product brochures and marketing info won't make a difference if they aren't presented in such a way that the customer will be receptive to them.

This could be the biggest challenge for companies like Experticity, whose entire business involves delivering a real-world experience inside of a real-world environment, but via an artificial, digital medium.

Tags: Experticity, self-service, in-store marketing, customer support