Unlocking Retail's Human Touch

Digital commerce has made shopping more pleasant by shielding consumers from some of the traditional pain points of physical retailing, including long lines and clutter on the floor. It's now easier to discover the products we want, on our own terms, and at the best value. Hyper-efficiency has been delivered and consumers have responded favorably by taking more of their shopping online.

What digital platforms have not done, despite their peer-network models and media-rich capabilities, is replace the need for true physical, human interaction. An emoji is neither a smile nor a handshake, and digital content, including some of the new virtual reality experiments, is not a fully immersive emotional experience.

We see a collective yearning for more true physical interactivity through varied consumer shifts such as the return to cities, the increasing popularity of music festivals, and the growth of travel and culinary experiences. Evidence of this pivot towards experiences was served this past Black Friday when, as retail traffic numbers dwindled, Broadway receipts reached an all-time high. Clearly we are seeking something more.

This need to connect creates an opportunity for retailers to leverage their physical locations to deliver unique experiences that strengthen brand connection. The new physical retail experience should urgently incorporate more product novelty served up in an entertaining fashion, as consumers want to be delighted for every cent of discretionary income they spend.

Stellar customer service is as important to winning at retail as novel products and presentation. Unfortunately customer service is a lackluster area for too many retailers and a source of frustration for customers. Inspired employees and sales associates should play a key role in filling up retail's human, emotive vacuum. Human Resources teams should work closely with branding and marketing teams to make this happen.

Think of how pleasant and interesting it would to be served by someone who knows their craft well and can personalize that knowledge and service for you. For instance, we all have a favorite mixologist that can distill the perfect cocktail along with the requisite story you can later retell, or a personal shopper that knows what styles match your personality. This level of customized inspiration and service should be the future of a richer and more personalized shopping experience.

Some brands are already bringing this "delight-the-consumer" thinking to life in winning fashion. Think of Apple's confident ability to deliver technology as a lifestyle story, with its retail experience presenting high-touch exemplars such as the friendly genius bars as well as the engaging talks hosted at its space. Internationally, Japan's Tsutaya Electrics, which started as a DVD rental company, has evolved into a lifestyle entertainment merchant that has mastered the art of the inspirational high touch. They present their products ranging from technology to fun gadgets and books in a warm dark-wood setting with plants and flowers. They also make the experience inspiringly personal through hundreds of employee lifestyle experts. This lifestyle approach is also beautifully embodied by New Zealand's The Department Store, which makes apparel shopping a relaxing set of discoveries guided by concierge-level personal shoppers. Travel, another industry plagued by poor customer service, has also seen the rise of winning new leaders such as SouthWest and Virgin focused on delivering an honest and fun consumer experience across all touch points, from the booking the flight to the ongoing loyalty program communications.

The following are some ways in which a retailer's human capital can amplify its ability to connect emotionally with consumers and maintain a dynamic, friendly and productive relationship.

1) Put Human Resources and talent management at the heart of brand planning. Advocacy begins from within, so think of your employees as your most important brand asset. Hire based on brand values and the ability of the talent to bring those values to life.

2) Create lifestyle experts. Make sure you are training lifestyle experts that can get consumers excited about the industry, trends and products you're selling. Look at what brands like Best Buy have done to leverage their staff's friendly expertise into an engagement asset. Make the idea of a personal shopper the norm not an anomaly.

3) Rethink sales incentives. Most salesperson to consumer interactions seem rushed and forced. Put in place new key performance indicators that place a premium on customer satisfaction, quality time spent with customers, insights gathered, solutions provided and smiles triggered. Good results on those fronts will surely also result in stronger sales.

4) Leverage technology to amplify the human factor. While it's challenging to deliver every consumer interaction in person, try to imbue other forms with as much of the human touch as possible. Leverage consumer-centric platforms such as messaging services to communicate with consumers directly, inspiring them or answering their needs.

5) Turn the store into a social, human-centric environment. A way of making shopping less transactional, and therefore less prone to promotional/competitive pressures by turning stores into destinations with familiar faces. The inspired sales staff we reference above should interact in an environment that is more inviting. Think less clutter, more welcome areas.

The human touch can make a big difference in the current retail environment that has become too transactional, promotional, and robotic. Think of ways in which an inspired sales team can put a real smile in your customer's face. That is still the best indicator of a job well done.