Can Stores Be High-Tech and Personal?

January 20, 2011

By going higher-tec, are stores depersonalizing the shopping experience? The right balance will hold enduring appeals to many

Many shoppers are learning to appreciate the tech-savvy nature of supermarkets, and even demand more. With self-checkouts, cell phone scanners, in-store media, QR codes, online orders for pickup, RFID and mobile coupons, state-of-the-art stores increasingly deliver on the promise of independent, efficient and maximum-savings store visits.

By contrast, other shoppers prefer a more sociable type of shop, where they interact with store staff, bend elbows with neighbors, enjoy the sensuous nature of many foods, and consider the people they’re buying for while in the aisles.

Both styles work. Our question at The Lempert Report is how retailers can apply technology to build productivity and efficiencies for shoppers and stores without depersonalizing the shopping experience. What is the right balance to strike to lift store performance and shopper satisfaction? What are the key markers of a store’s shopper base that determine which stores should go all-in on technology, hold back or settle somewhere in the middle? Are there ways to tech-up a store without discouraging more serendipitous shoppers?

Indeed, some experts would say that high-tech adds to personalization with suggested purchases and targeted promotion offers based on their histories in the store. That may be true, we feel, but it is delivered in a functional way, not a warm way that reinforces the central community nature and feel of the local supermarket. Should stores follow the Apple store models and technologically equip roaming staff with the ability to serve, confirm prices, item availability and special services? Or would that go too far and blow an operating budget? The local market would dictate relevancy, we believe.

Meanwhile, IHL Group research has found that only 41% of consumers like self-checkouts, but just 8% said they wouldn’t use them, reported The Boston Globe. With findings like that and retailers seeking to save labor expense and speed their front-ends, Stop & Shop has these lanes in 85% of their stores, and plans to equip more as well as hand-held self-scanners. CVS has also put in more than two-dozen self-checklanes in Boston-area stores, the paper added.

These stores could actually improve by being on tech’s leading edge, as long as they watch their footing on the personalization ridge. The Lempert Report suggests that stores moving in this direction also consider getting more personal (warm, sociable) in other ways to offset what some may perceive as cold and distancing.