In its earliest form, shopping involved bartering between two people to reach an equitable exchange. Commerce today has evolved to be far more structured, but that doesn’t mean it has to be soulless. Retailers in this constantly connected world are privy to a wealth of priceless information on consumers’ browsing and buying behavior that can make the experience feel much more personal.
This powerful data, along with advances in marketing and customer service technology, means that many of our retail interactions can be automated. However, treating customers as pure numbers can become a slippery slope. In our rush to streamline processes, it’s important to keep the essence of the retail exchange as human as possible.
Retailers must strike a balance between operational efficiency – which will deliver the speedy service customers love and expect – and the human interaction that fosters consumer loyalty. There are a number of interactions where that human touch is essential in retail:
Empathy in customer service
Now more than ever before, shopping is a public two-way conversation between customer and retailer. If a product or service fails to meet a shopper’s expectations, their grievances can be publically posted to personal social networks and brand pages. In this situation, being greeted by a faceless corporation will do little to assuage frustration.
We all have been on the receiving end of an automated messaging service, and it can be frustrating at best. When a shopper is disappointed they want to speak to a real person, receive empathy for their situation and see a swift resolution. As it stands, automated computer systems currently lack the social sophistication to address all but the most basic shopper concerns.
Personal histories build trust
There is no question that shoppers want quality products, well made and at the right price. However there are intangibles for which many shoppers will pay a premium. Consumers like to be part of a story too, and they value and trust human endeavor.
Just look at the legions of Apple fans that bought into more than just a handset with the iPhone. Shoppers were captivated by Steve Jobs’ vision and quest for perfection. When seeking long-term fans who will keep coming back to your business it’s important to remember that heart rules over the head and that true passion is contagious. Retailers should not underestimate the power of the people behind a business.
Good advice is priceless
The bigger the price tag, the more likely a shopper is to seek reassurance that this is the right purchase for their needs. The same rules apply online and retailers should see it as their mission to be more than just a point of sale. Just because your store is virtual doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer shoppers assistance.
The rules that govern good customer service in the physical world still apply online; shoppers don’t want to be pestered by shop assistants when they are browsing, but they do want to be able to seek out advice and be alerted to special deals.
Whether you are pointing them toward a favorable independent review or offering them advice on complementary items, there are countless opportunities to make the shopping experience more than just a transactional process.
This is not a game of hide and seek
Technological advances do so much to support our businesses, but it’s essential that retailers don’t hide behind their webpages. Shopkeepers large and small, online or offline should do their best to keep the soul in shopkeeping. At Rakuten we’ve seen some of our most successful merchants flourish by cultivating a two-way dialogue with shoppers and bringing entertainment to ecommerce.
Ultimately this dialogue serves to enrich the shopping experience and help keep it personal. Price will always be a factor, but it’s worth going the extra mile for a fan or regular shopper that buys into more than just product.
Bernard Luthi is COO of Rakuten.com Shopping.