Here's what I think should happen instead: When a customer walks into Barnes & Noble and connects to the store's free WiFi network, there should be a prominent button on the log-in page that says, "We aren't afraid to bargain" and drives the customer to a Barnes & Noble shopping application or mobile site that hooks into the various online shopping engines (PriceRunner, Google Shopping, even SnapTell).
As the customer browses, they should scan the items in their basket with the phone and keep a running tally. When they're done shopping, they should have three buttons to click on the phone -- one that says "pay & exit," one that says "pay cash," and another that says "bargain." If the customer presses the first button, they can simply walk out of the store having paid with a credit card. They save time, experience instant gratification with their purchase, and the store doesn't need to pay a cashier.
If they press the second button, they'll get a message that sends them to a clerk (they can also simply walk up and pay cash, of course, without using the app at all) where they hand over their money and walk out.
But if they press the "bargain" button, they'll go to a different desk where they can haggle with an empowered salesperson, somebody working at least partially on commission who can negotiate a fair price that keeps the customer happy and retains a profitable sale for Barnes & Noble -- perhaps even convincing the customer to buy a magazine or notebook as well. Will the customer pay more than they would at Amazon? Probably. But they'll also pay less than before bargaining, won't have to pay shipping, and won't have to wait. Moreover, they will walk back to their car having experienced a face-to-face human interaction fueled by the internet rather than despite the internet.
On the surface, what I'm proposing is similar to AisleBuyer -- one of the winner's of the PepsiCo10 challenge event that we produced with PepsiCo last summer. But AisleBuyer exists to limit interaction with employees. It reduces costly person-to-person contact and enables customers to shop, get coupons, purchase, and leave the store without ever having to talk to another human.
I don't deny that AisleBuyer is onto something. In data from the most recent report by the Center for the Digital Future at USC's Annenberg School (where I have the privilege of being a senior research fellow), we see an interesting three-year decline from 30 percent to 24 percent among internet users who said they were uncomfortable without face-to-face contact in online shopping. Folks are getting used to automated shopping.
On the other hand, that same data shows a two-year slight 2 percent uptick in people who would miss the presence of fellow shoppers if they only shopped online. So there is room for both the people-free AisleBuyer strategy and my people-plus-databases-powered new form of haggling.
So why do I think that face-to-face interaction is a better retail experience, and what does this all have to do with marketing?
Most businesses want to scale and the enemy of scale is friction, which is why the internet has been such a boon to so many businesses that can exploit its frictionlessness, but also why the internet has been bad for newspapers and other businesses that are in the business of distributing physical bits of media rather than information (CDs and books spring to mind).
But while friction is bad for business, for life it is a different story. Friction creates the most satisfying and memorable moments in our lives. You probably don't remember your first email or instant message, but I'll bet you do remember your first slow dance and your first kiss. From a physiological perspective, friction is how we wind up bringing babies into the world, and why we enjoy the process of doing so. Simply being around other people lights up our minds across the range of our senses in neuroscientific ways that we're only beginning to understand. Just think about how much more likely you are to laugh out loud at comedy when you watch it in a crowded theater, or at the very least with another person, and you'll see what I mean. Friction leads to satisfaction, not always, but often.
The internet is the consummate frictionless environment, and once we are searching for something it becomes, to quote John Battelle, "the database of our intentions." But this is more true of particular intentions than general ones: it's more true of searching rather than it is of exploring. If all I want is to buy the Franzen book, then I can order it on Amazon and the job is done, but if what I want is more nebulous -- something fun to read, for example -- then wandering in a bookstore and talking with a sales clerk can lead to a higher degree of satisfaction, particularly if it's the same sales clerk with whom I have been chatting about books for several years.
I've been talking about book buying a great deal here because it's a clear example, but the same holds true for consumer packaged goods. A bottle of Mr. Clean is a bottle of Mr. Clean, and one day soon information about where the cheapest bottle of Mr. Clean is for sale within a 10 block radius of a customer's current location will be only a click away on a smartphone.
We do not as a culture have a good metric for that higher level of satisfaction driven by context, and because of this lack, we wind up making decisions about where to buy goods like groceries and sweatshirts based on price alone. Generally speaking, though, customers don't necessarily want the best price -- they just want a better price than the first one they see.
For marketers -- particularly marketers of retail environments and shopper marketers focused on the customer "near the point of purchase" rather than in the wild -- a haggling-friendly environment can activate more parts of the customers identity and create a more cognitively satisfying experience than searching and clicking.
Traditional retail cannot compete on price, so it has to compete on environment. Digitally decoupling fixed price from a retail environment might rescue a portion of the sales slipping away from commerce to e-commerce. Moreover, when we add on top of this a layer of manufacturer coupons, promotions, and the sometimes-simple pleasure of talking with another person, we work to create a satisfying context.
Everything that can be digitized eventually will be digitized. The smartest folks in business and marketing today will spend time thinking about what cannot be digitized, the remainder of the digital division problem. If I'm right, then that remainder will be the fertile soil of success.
Brad Berens is chief content officer for iMedia, ad:tech & CMO Executive Summits.
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