by Joe Pendlebury (@theuxchap)

In-Store Technology: The Gift that Keeps on Forgiving

3 sleeps until Christmas. Our shopping centre is chock-a-block. People are everywhere. Scenes comparable to the music video for The Verve’s, “Bittersweet Symphony”. Just substitute Richard Ashcroft, with me, and a Baby Jogger City Select double pushchair. It’s about the size of a Dodge Ram!

Two Retailers. Two Photo Kiosks. Two Epic Fails.

Boots and the iOS Blame Game

The missus wants to print off some photos of the kids for her grandad, as a Christmas present. “Let’s go to Boots, she says. “They have photo kiosks”. We get there and pull up at the bank of five kiosks, where four very stressed out, middle-aged men, were already seated, looking bamboozl. One man, in particular, rocked back and forth on his stool, like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Great film, by the way.

As my fiancée plugs her iPhone in, we then realise why. None of her photos were loading on the kiosk. She unplugged and tried again. Still, no joy. A few minutes later, we caught the attention of a Store Associate, who initially seemed to have no clue why. Then came the, “Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in again?” Standard procedure response. We go through the motions, anyway. Nada.

Leif Michelsen, (2017), Boots Photo Kiosk — Product Listing [ONLINE]. Available at: http://payload296.cargocollective.com/1/0/5007/8223236/kiosk2_2_1000.png [Accessed 22 December 2017].

After a 30-second pause of looking at the kiosk, carefully crafting her response, the Store Associate then says, “Oh yeah, we’ve had a few people experience this issue. Have you got the latest Apple update installed?” The missus checks and responds, “11.2.1?” The Store Associate replies, “Oh… I don’t think our kiosks work with that version — it’s your phone then…” She proceeds to walk off, whilst we gaze back at her, in utter shock. Wow!

The chap immediately to the right of us then looked back and said, “I’ve got the same problem…”

Costco and the “Order In-store and Collect Two Days Later” Madness

Annoyed, but still intent on printing these photos, my determined other half decided to drag us all out to Costco — because the stress of shopping three days before Christmas, in a significantly large shopping centre, isn’t already painful enough!

“They’ve got a photo kiosk. Plus, we’ve ordered photos online with them before, what could go wrong?” she said. Famous last words. On arrival, two of the three kiosks were again in use. But, this appears to be a much more promising situation. The two thirty-something women on the kiosks next to us, were happily tapping away, selecting their photos. Again, the missus plugged her phone in and “Boom!” her photos were all loading onto the screen in front of us.

“Hang on, these are my oldest photos”, she said. “How do I get my newest ones to show first?” An eager beaver of a Store Associate lurking in our peripheral, stepped in and promptly advised, “the system only allows for photos to be ordered from oldest to newest, unfortunately”. However, he did advise of a “hack” of sorts — the kind your Ops Dev Team, put in place, as a “Quick Fix”. He suggested creating a separate album on the iPhone first of the photos we wanted to print and accessing them on the kiosk, that way. Not ideal, but it did the job.

All set and ready to print, we then asked where to pick them up from. “I’m afraid we can’t print them instantly. You can pick them up on Sunday morning.” Two days later — at which point, I’ll be at the in-laws, in Wolverhampton (or “South Staffordshire” as those that live in the suburbs like to refer to it as). No good.

Suffice to say, we didn’t end up printing any photos. Instead, we’re looking to use her Dad’s printer. Old school. Who even owns a printer these days? Thankfully for us, he does.

Super-Sized In-Store Tablets? Seriously, What’s the Point?

When shopping in M&S, have you ever come across those super-sized, steroid-induced, tablet-looking, kiosk thingymajigs? Some of them have these lime green halo-like rings around the top, with the words, “Browse and Order”. It’s looks like a cry for help. M&S’ take on a distress signal. They’re often isolated (or rather, stranded) in the middle of the shop floor. It’s a rarity you ever see anybody within a 10-metre radius of one. But why?

The most glaringly obvious issue is the lack of any information to advise what its purpose is or how it could help customers. It’s mostly a tool to browse the “full” product offering on Marks & Spencer’s website. But again, what problem does that solve? How are customers to know that a store doesn’t stock M&S’ “full” inventory, if they’re not otherwise, explicitly advised?

Retail Times, (2017), M&S In-store Kiosk [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.retailtimes.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Polytouch.jpg [Accessed 22 December 2017].

If I couldn’t find an item in store, my first port of call would be to ask a member of staff. Failing that, I’d look on M&S’ site on my iPhone whilst instore, or simply search Google for something similar to see if there is a store — either a physical one nearby, or one online — that offers what I’m after. Yes, as a 32-year old male, I’m not representative of M&S’ core demographic — the 40/50-something female. Even so, I’d still hazard a guess that they’d follow a similar path of logic.

Nevertheless, these are assumptions I’d love to test, by observing the in-store behaviours of customers, in and around the vicinity of these digital initiatives. The trouble is, I’d no sooner be turfed out of the store by the Security Guard on the pretence of “suspicious behaviour”. Admittedly, I’m the guy that always gets pulled over at airport security. My Mum used to say, “It’s because you’re so tall!” Hmmm…

You Want the Truth? I’ll Give You the Truth!

The reasons (yes, multiple!) why in-store tech rarely gets used, is pretty simple:

  • It often doesn’t work.
  • It’s not maintained, which is why it often doesn’t work!
  • It’s badly marketed — what does it do, who is it for and how does it help me?
  • In-store staff aren’t trained well enough (or worse-still, simply aren’t trained!) on how to use it, so there’s no drive on their part to encourage customers to use it.

Stop chucking money down the drain! If there’s not a valid use case, don’t invest in the tech, in the first place. It’s the same with AR, VR, Voice, etc. I’m a strong believer in the “Humans First, Technology Second” mantra, coined by Futurologist at the John Lewis Partnership, the awesome, John Vary. Cool guy, with a job title I’m just a little bit envious of. Although, John if you’re reading this, please read on (you’ll soon see why)!

Fit new technology around genuine user needs and business goals, not the other way round.

It’s not just the high-street retailers that are making costly mistakes; it’s the high-end, luxury brands too. I was recently “daaaarn Souf” in London Town, on a work-related visit. I had a couple of hours to spare and was intent on hunting down the best examples of in-store tech on Oxford Street, Carnaby Street and the surrounding areas. I’d made some enquiries beforehand and had a recommendation to go and visit the “Magic Mirror” installation in Burberry’s, Regent Street store. Thankfully, before I got there, the client I met with advised that the mirror hadn’t been working for months!

It goes back to my first bullet point above. What’s the point in installing such expensive technology, if you have no intention of maintaining it — or rather, you do have good intentions, but it’s not quick or easy to fix?

Through word of mouth, this type of tech builds hype that attracts attention from far and wide. Had I have made the trip down to “Lan-dan” specifically to see that mirror, I would have been hugely disappointed. In much worse cases, it could even tarnish one’s view of that brand.

It was a similar story, during a Christmas shopping trip up to Leeds, only a couple of days back. During a visit to the amazing John Lewis store in the iconic and stunning, Victoria Gate, I was keen to see the “Stickman Adventure” digital installation that John spoke of, during his talk at WIRED Retail, a couple of month back. Unfortunately, the installation wasn’t working due to a “Login Keychain Password” error on a couple of the screens representing the installation — and blackouts, on others.

Joe Pendlebury, (2017), Stickman Adventure Installation at John Lewis (Leeds) [ONLINE]. Available at: N/A [Accessed 20 December 2017].

Final Thoughts

Look, 2018 is set to be a massive year for brick-and-mortar retail. Investing in the right technology, to solve real user problems, could be the difference between success and self-destruction. Do your research, first. Don’t speculatively invest in technology, without consulting your customers. Likewise, don’t fall into the trap of believing the media hype surrounding the latest tech — AR, VR and Voice, especially. It’s not for everyone.

Through asking the right types of questions and observing your customers as they shop, you can make much better-informed judgements. New technology isn’t always the answer.

There are significant costs beyond that upfront investment —store integration, integration with other [legacy] systems, ongoing maintenance, marketing, staff training, and more. Sometimes, there’s more value to be gained from repurposing or fixing, what you’ve already got!


One Last Thing…

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