The future of shopping isn’t retail, it’s service

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Remember when we thought service was a privilege?

“We’ll gift wrap that for you, madam”, they’d say. “We’ll exchange that for you, sir.”

Then we started expecting service — even demanding it. Brands began stationing staff by the door to ask, ‘How are you today?’ They put up signs that said, ‘Thank you for visiting.’

But is that service?

“We should ask ourselves — how do people want to spend 30 minutes versus what do they want to buy?” Steve Lewis, CMO, M.Video

Retail’s changed. It’s not about ‘What I can buy from you?’ any more. It’s about ‘What can you help me achieve?’

It’s moving from a purely transactional exchange to something more sophisticated: an empathetic relationship. That’s because we, as shoppers, have become more sophisticated. Online or out on the street, we know what we need and where to go to get it. We demand more of brands, retailers, and our shopping experience. That’s why making a real and personal connection can make all the difference to a brand.

Getting service right is as important as getting digital right, and it’s digital that has removed a lot of the hassle associated with the basics: choosing stuff and paying for it. Whether we’re buying a book or booking a cab, we simply swipe, click, and wait for it to turn up.

But shopping can and should be more than a series of frictionless transactions; and service can, should and will be the point of difference in increasingly commoditised markets.

Service can add the empathy, make the connection and inject the joy. It isn’t an add-on any more, it’s central to the proposition.

“Service used to be given as a privilege. Now it’s demanded in expectation.” Maksim Demidov, Merchandising Director, Leroy Merlin

At FITCH, we’ve been interviewing business leaders around the world about the shifting dynamics of service. They know it’s fast becoming the priority but they also know it’s always changing. So when we ask, ‘What’s your long-term strategy for service?’ the answer tends to be, ‘I don’t know.’

When deciding where to focus and what changes to make, it’s worth bearing in mind that the level and type of service consumers expect changes with the maturity and the location of the market.

Look at Uber. When they started out, we marvelled at our ability to summon a stranger’s car in a matter of minutes and go wherever we wanted. Now we stare at the screen and wonder, ‘Why on Earth did the driver go that way?’ As we become familiar with the level of service, our expectations climb — and this process begins again wherever Uber launches.

“Service used to be a side-dish…it’s now the main course.” Stephanie Choi, Global VP Retail, Samsung

Similarly, when opening a new store, retailers can introduce a new and differentiating brand promise. But as the market matures and the brand becomes more familiar, being ‘new’ isn’t enough. Service as a means of delivering on the promise becomes ever more important.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the period of time from initial courtship of customers to relationship to familiarity is getting shorter and shorter — even in new markets.

“Many services are turning into one-button-push affairs. Automation commoditises if you are unlucky, but it can differentiate if you play it smart.” Stuart Foster, VP Brand, Hilton

Technology can help. Every brand, whether it’s an app, an online store, an actual shop or some combination of the three will be using algorithms to pinpoint what consumers need, where they need it and when. But again, technology’s not enough.

At FITCH, we believe in the idea of ‘Aprons & Algorithms’. Algorithms remove the pain points and make things frictionless. But the aprons reintroduce some of the friction — and friction’s not always a bad thing. It can add the emotion, the richness, the texture to the experience.

It’s these emotional experiences that will make brands stand out in the future. Because shoppers won’t be coming for the retail, they’ll be coming for the service.

● Service should be central to customer experience, not an add-on.

● The human touch is important — reframe the role of people in your brand.

● Deliver on promises you’ve already made.

● Once the pain points have been removed service can add the emotion back into the experience.

Written by

FITCH is a global design consultancy. Designing the Future. Online, offline and in person.

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