Is Brick and Mortar Retail Going in the Wrong Direction?

When Amazon really started to pick up steam and gain the traction that would propel them into becoming the colossus they are today, I will freely admit that I felt sad for the brick and mortar booksellers that would soon fall by the wayside. B. Dalton . . .Borders. Not to mention the smaller stores that had already been put on the ropes by the chain stores.

I always seemed to have a good experience at these stores. Most (though not all) of the employees seemed to enjoy what they did for a living and even seemed to know their product(s) well. As well as could rightfully be expected when your inventory numbered in the hundreds of thousands, anyway.

During the times I frequent most clothing stores, it’s always been a different story. Whether it be an outlet shop in Camarillo, or a more high-end (a relative term for me) shop here in Los Angeles, the standard of service generally seems to be fairly poor. Inventory displayed as if a hurricane had passed through. Thoroughly apathetic employees gossiping while customers . . PAYING customers . . . wait for help.

ZARA an international retailer that has been around for decades, announced recently it they would be switching to automated checkout in some of their stores.

Think the Self-Checkout line in your supermarket.

ZARA must, for the most part, be very well-run, as founder Amancio Ortega is worth billions (67 at last count, to be exact). But this move seems both foolhardy and the exact INVERSE of what you’d think a brick and mortar store would do to perpetuate itself. If you were a retailer, after all, wouldn’t you want to take every opportunity to differentiate your shoppers’ experience by providing superior customer service, more personal attention, etc.?

By opting for MORE automation, it seems like ZARA is just passing this opportunity by. Swiping a card and entering a PIN number is the same undertaking EVERYWHERE and since it seems almost no card reader can render a quick verdict on cards that have the security chip, it doesn’t seem, at present anyway, that this move will save much time. If you look at the Self-Checkout line at your supermarket, you will see this is so . . . items that don’t scan. . . . customers that don’t input their information correctly . . .others that try to jump the line.

No wonder you see those aproned ‘retail referees’ at every location. Someone has to keep the peace.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for Zara, and other retailers no doubt contemplating this move, to demand (and pay for) better service from their staff members instead?

Judging from most of the response I’ve seen, apparently Zara had become known for bottlenecks at checkout. Not exactly the reputation you seek as a retailer. I can totally understand how this itself can create a negative shopping experience, but it’s also something that can be dealt with by PEOPLE. A commodity that seems to be in ever-shrinking evidence among the fewer and fewer retailers that remain open today.

Look at Trader Joe’s. They get hit by shopping rushes all the time. And when they do, employees seem to come from EVERYWHERE to help out at the front, cut down the line and return things to normalcy. Their shoppers seem to know this and you don’t generally see a lot of trepidation among them when they find themselves at the back of what seems to be (at least temporarily) a long line.

By further automating the shopping process and removing at least some employees from the equation, Zara loses what would seem to be an ideal branding opportunity.

And service is VERY MUCH a branding opportunity. Thoughts?

Jon Lee is a Los Angeles-based marketing, marketing communications and events professional and the former Director of Marketing for the LA Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena. He can be reached at

Originally published at on July 6, 2016.

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