The Trouble with Technology

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Consumer needs for meaningful, pleasurable experiences in stores will not go away just because they can save time and money on-line. Nor will the human needs for touch, eye contact, and “chemistry” go away because consumers meet and greet in the social media. New technologies merely reshape the format in which these benefits are delivered. Rather than focusing on the best ways to display products, Marketing Semiotics identifies the underlying experience consumers seek in a retail setting and product category and aligns retail design with these expectations.

The Semiotics of Technology.

During observations at the North Face store on Michigan Avenue, I was reminded that on-line technologies have created a new paradigm of expectations for the in-store experience, including value, choice, and immediacy. After browsing the store for ten minutes or so, a respondent selected a jacket buy but wanted it in a different color. At the checkout the shopper inquired about the other color and, rather than track it down in the company data base, the clerk directed them to search the North Face website when they got home. If the customer wanted immediate service, they would have to download the North Face app themselves and search from their mobile device, because the store lacked direct access to the company website and did not have time to search for the item in their nationwide store inventory. Though mobile apps enhance the shopping experience by giving consumers immediate access to the product line and other information, they are no substitute for attentive customer service.

This experience teaches the simple truth that if retailers do not move the customer from choice to transaction in a smooth, convenient process, the customer will look elsewhere. Rather than satisfying the customer’s need for the right jacket, North Face literally sent them out of the store into the arms of nearby competitors on the Magnificent Mile, including Columbia, Eddie Bauer, and Patagonia, where they shopped for a similar jacket and made the purchase.

There are many ways to align the in-store experience to the new shopping paradigm. For example, by accepting returns at the store for on-line purchases, management not only enhances customer service but also gives shoppers an excuse to visit the store and experience the brand first hand. By installing Internet technologies in the store, or providing clerks with smart pads, they place shoppers and service staff within reach of the company’s full product line, sales, and product availability and lead customers to purchase even if the item is not in the store. Furthermore, mobile credit card processing saves time for shoppers at the checkout. In store, consumers can enjoy these technical conveniences and also enjoy the shopping pleasures associated with touching the fabrics, try things on, showing them to friends, and browsing for products that fall below the radar of their on-line searches. It’s up to management to train staff to meet customer expectations in this new, technology-driven shopping environment.

© 2013 marketing semiotics

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