In one important way, the modern-day consumer is like those who have come before. In good economic times, we fill our closets with more shoes, shirts and jeans—whether we need them or not—and everyone from the customer to the business is happy. In the rougher patches, such as the recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009, sales drop and silence descends on retail sites: you could hear a pin drop in near-empty brick-and-mortar stores and malls.
Of course, e-commerce upended many brick-and-mortar business models. Only the strong and forward-looking survived. And now mobile devices have brought new consumer capabilities and expectations. Product reviews are a click away. Show-rooming is the norm: a consumer puts his or her hands on a product in a brick-and-mortar store, only to make a purchase—likely from a competitor, at a lower cost, that includes free shipping—on a handheld device.
That last move—the ordering on a mobile phone without the help of a clerk or the touch of a salesperson—is indicative of a significant shift toward consumer self-sufficiency. Many mobile users want nothing more than to do it all themselves. According to a report released by the Consumer Electronics Association, more 58 percent of shoppers who use mobile devices indicated that they prefer to look up information on their devices while shopping, rather than talk to store employees. This was especially true among men. And shoppers aged 25-44.
Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of mobile shoppers perceived the information they gather via their mobile device as more beneficial than the information available in-store via product displays or sales literature – or sales people.
What is a retailer to do?
“There's never going to be one answer for all. Each one of the retailers, and the experiences that they want to deliver, and the types of customers that they have coming through the door, vary greatly,” Ryan Craver, former Senior Vice President, Strategy, of parent company Hudson’s Bay, told me in an interview for my new book, The Art of Mobile Persuasion -- artofmobilepersuasion.com.
“If you take a Lord & Taylor or Macy's, under the Hudson's Bay Company umbrella, customers are coming in the door because they know of promotions. They want to come in very quickly. They know exactly what they are looking for. They tend, though not all of them, to expect less of a customer service model and more of a self-sufficient model.”
But then there are the luxury brands, like Nordstrom and others.
“You go to the higher end—the Bergdorf Goodmans of the world and the Saks of the world—those have some promotional customers, but the majority of their customers have an expectation of a high level of service, a personal shopper level of service, where they are engaging with a person,” Craver said. “A personal shopper is providing them with feedback on what they are trying on and offering additional suggestive selling.
“The stores that have a customer who is coming in very quickly and looking for self -sufficient service—they will be the ones that adapt quickly to the new approaches. The Saks of the world—they won't rely on it in the same way, but they will need to provide something.”
If you are Lowe’s, a Fortune 100 home improvement company, and a Southeastern septuagenarian, you practice what you preach: “Never Stop Improving.”
Sean Bartlett, former Director of Digital Experience, Product, & Omni-channel Integration at Lowe's, led an initiative by the chain to put 42,000 iPhones into the hands of sales associates as a way to help customers get a more satisfying experience from the brand’s iPhone app.
The intent: to create a virtuous circle by enabling sales people to help their customers, who had already made mobile a big part of their daily routine.
And to make the self-sufficient mobile user get value from the humans in the store. Some took him up on the proposition. Others still prefer the no-talk way of shopping.