Digital Transformation in the World of Retail
Rosemary French built up her reputation on the back of a career as a commercial and Managing Director for several businesses. An experienced Non Executive Director and Chair in both the Private and Not For Profit sectors, she was awarded an OBE in 2014 for services to women in business and was the 2017 Sussex Business Woman of the Year. Here are her thoughts on the digital transformation of retail
It is accepted that retail is changing, accelerated by the fall of so many leading bricks and mortar brands in our High Streets. Not only because of online growth, but because of the way that digital innovation is transforming retail. Future forecasters anticipate retail concepts which seem impossible today but as the Tomorrow’s World programme so often demonstrated, extraordinary and seemingly unlikely ideas will end up in some form or other in day-to-day life in the decades ahead.
Already Amazon’s new grocery store without tills in London where you shop with a phone app is not so strange really, when one considers it is really a small step from self-service checkouts and self-scan as you shop. I had not realised that thousands of unmanned convenience stores were already being rolled out in China, where customers also use their phone app to enter, scan and pay for their purchases. I first thought that it might go some way to reduce shoplifting. I then considered it could increase phone theft, but I expect in time that apps and indeed our phone will be located in a microchip implanted in the wrist.
Ikea is creating drawings of autonomous mobile retail spaces that customers can call to them by dropping a pin in a map app. Similarly, Hershey’s, is experimenting with concepts where the store is no longer in a fixed physical location but as a flexible unit which will move to the customer. A solar powered convenience store is being trialled in Shanghai which is like a 24-hour mobile pop-up shop, called via an app with a hologram sales assistant greeting the customer.
I reflected that ‘Come to me’ retail, as Deliveroo, Uber, home hairdressers and so on, are apparently styled, is not such a new idea. In my Scottish childhood the onion Johnny on his cycle, the butcher, and fishmonger regularly visited our rural home. My mum could select and forward order most clothing from the offering in the back of the vans driven and owned by the entrepreneurial Indian and Pakistani families that arrived in the 1950’s and 60s. And after all is the humble ice cream van not an original ‘Come to me’ retailer!
It strikes me that valuable customer service skills will be lost as one-to-one retailer and customer interaction declines. I was a graduate trainee in a multiple grocery retailer and the customer service skills learned in those years have served me well throughout my career. People that have lost their jobs in retail and hospitality during Covid are being encouraged to enter the healthcare sector where customer service continues to be highly valued. On the other hand, customer service in too many banks, utility companies and indeed a lot of online retail has disappeared behind digitised telephone systems. Woe betide you if you want to speak to a human being.
The bods thinking about customer service digital transformation need to better understand the importance of personal interaction. If we end up in a world where a hologram says, ‘have a nice day’ and we believe it, then the world is a sadder place. We are sentient beings, relationships matter and as Covid has proved, lack of interaction leads us down the slippery path of poor mental health.
First published in South East Business Magazine