A recent unplanned visit to an electronics store gave me a first hand account of the state of affairs in brick & mortar consumer electronics retail.  I was travelling and urgently needed a device, so I dropped into a store. It was a struggle right from the word go – there were different products but it was very difficult to go through the key product information of different models and compare. In the end I selected a piece and wanted to get a demo but there was not a single knowledgeable sales person in the entire store. They were woefully under-equipped to even explain the basic features. After trying with a few folks I was basically made to figure out for myself, despite the fact that there were store staff minions milling around. This incidentally happened in a large city in India in a prime locality. This “sting in the (re)tail” experience made me realize how irrelevant the physical store is steadily becoming nowadays.

One could dismiss this as a one off incident, but unfortunately it’s not an unfamiliar story for many consumers visiting a physical store today. As a practitioner I see a deeper problem lurking behind. Naturally, one would be tempted to rush and offer technology/digital solution to the problem. On the other hand, training or skill of store staff may very well be the real issue in this case. If we take a step back and think about the larger picture, the proverbial elephant in the room here is “people-capability-empowerment”.

In CE (Consumer Electronics) retail it’s becoming important day by day to be adept in offering “solutions” to the customers need. The store sales persons need to be able to keep with the times and should be offering advice to the customer on product choices, options, what fits with what etc. The pivotal role of the physical store for a customer is for trying out the product for real and the store needs to provide a seamless demo of the product. No amount of omnichannel focus or having a robust supply chain would help if the actual store experience of the customer falls flat.

The key challenge is to empower and enable the store staff to offer personalization and intimacy at scale for each customer.

Entire categories like wearables, health & fitness gadgets, smart home solutions will need a very different approach where the store’s ability to showcase the solution, allowing the customer to test will be crucial. Any technology intervention needs to be around the human element of the store sales person  ‘how can we empower them’, ‘how can we channelize them to sections/areas where customer need more assistance’ and high touch service is paramount. IOT(Internet of Things) based solutions can be used to enhance the salesperson’s efficacy – e.g. with the use of smart demo area, the product being evaluated can be sensed to bring up all related information which the sales person can use in the background to explain to the customer. Omnichannel retail assumes an omnichannel shopper but in the real world, shoppers are much more diverse than could be explained by one convenient label. So future solutions needs to focus on enabling the retailer to offer a differentiated experience to different shoppers and across different categories.

As a customer walks into the store he or she may have already made some research on the target product or solution and wants to explore further. The sales person needs all the information about the choices, product features etc which he can get on a screen in front of the customer by quickly scanning the product. He should also be empowered to offer to the customer a specific price that is only valid if he buys it then & there. Here technology can assist him by quickly scanning available inventory and prompting him with a discount tactic at that point in time. This can be done by an AI based engine which quickly searched through all relevant factors influencing the purchase of the product. Todays’ store sales team needs to be transformed into solution advisors and shopping assistants of tomorrow, augmented by shopper insights, contextual information, smart product display and data, instant personalized offers and the likes. Nowadays shoppers are much smarter about the responses they get from brick & mortar stores and increasing “showrooming” behavior shows that retailers are playing a catch up game here. With all the talk of omnichannel, physical stores still lag behind their digital counterparts. In digital channels, the customer has full control, identity can be known through the profile and life cycle can be tracked. But the same is not true in brick & mortar. That’s going to change, when store assistants will know who’s walking in and a truly personalized shopping journey could follow.  The retailer can also take advantage of the “maven networks” to create a connected community where it’s a win-win for all – the so called “mavens”, the consumer and the retailer. Especially in advanced and specialized categories like health & fitness, smart homes, the independent and expert advice would be of immense value to a new buyer. The retailers can also offer more engaging experience to the shopper.

In short, the CE retailers need to adopt a human centric digital transformation revolving around empowering the store staff and creating an enriching personalized shopping experience for the customer. This is what I call the power of “HumanAIty” – where the store staff does what he/she can best do – build personal relationship, show empathy, provide reassurance albeit enhanced in his/her capacity to harness information, spot opportunities and overcome complexity.