Friday, February 10, 2006

Technology, Distant Experts to Replace Salespeople in Future Stores

Elaine Walker
The Miami Herald

NEW YORK - Tired of going into a store and finding no one to answer your questions?

In the retail store of the future that problem may disappear. No more hunting down a sales clerk and hoping they know enough to explain the differences between each model of digital camera or power drill.

Instead, pick up the telephone at a kiosk, where you'll be connected via live video to an expert, who could be hundreds of miles away at a call center. The expert will be armed with a variety of tools to satisfy customer questions, ranging from store maps to product details, inventory status and access to the Web.

These live customer support kiosks were one of the newest technologies showcased at the National Retail Federation convention in January. As the nation's largest retailers continue to look for ways to make their business more efficient, they're increasingly turning to technology for help.

``Retail is a pretty simple business, but what adds complexity is the size and scale,'' said Home Depot Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Nardelli, whose company is spending more than $500 million a year on technology. ``We couldn't do it without technology.''

At the future Home Depot, loyal customers would be greeted by name after their cell phones notify employees they've arrived. Radio frequency identification tags attached to merchandise allows customers to self-check-out by using a retina scanner or entering a personal identification number.

Instead of mass-market ads, customers get personalized ads designed based on their buying patterns.

``We think this will evolve into a customized, private shopper'' experience, Nardelli said during a presentation. ``Customers are becoming much more selective, more aspirational and discerning.''

Picking out the perfect wine is also a lot easier at the gourmet grocery store of the future.

Swipe the bottle of syrah on a special ``hot spot'' kiosk and you'll be able to read reviews of the vintage, find out what foods it goes well with and what other wines would be similar. The secret: the radio frequency identification tag embedded on the hangtag.

Those same identification tags enable store employees to know when the shelves are running low on pinot noir or track whether someone takes a bottle without paying for it.

The high-tech wine cave was just one part of the X06 gourmet market of the future. Designed by a combination of technology giants including IBM, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Intel, the market aimed to give retailers a firsthand view of how they could use technology to make shopping more entertaining, informative and efficient.

``A lot of what's important to customers today is how to make the shopping experience more pleasant,'' said Stephen Sparrow, retail industry marketing manager for Microsoft. ``For a retailer to compete, there needs to be something that makes the customer say, `I feel better when I come in your store.'''

The market included interactive displays, where as soon as a customer picks up a chocolate bar or package of truffles, a video screen displays product information.

If the lines are too long at the checkout counter, sales assistants can utilize mobile devices equipped with a credit card reader and receipt printer to speed up the process.

At the live support kiosk, an expert from a call center can help the customer find recipes for a dinner party and display a map of the store highlighting where to find the items.

``What customers want is personal service,'' said Jeff Erwin, chief executive of Experticity LiveSupport System in Seattle. ``Retailers are struggling with how to provide that in a cost-effective way. We're increasing the capability of the retailer to give you that experience.''

At another kiosk in the flower department, a husband can get help designing a customized bouquet for his wife's birthday. Not sure how it's going to look? See an online picture before deciding whether to purchase. Then a florist in the store will arrange it according to the specifications.

No more waiting in line at the deli counter to order a sub. Instead, place a customized order at a kiosk and a message on your cell phone will let you know when the sandwich is ready for pickup.

With the swipe of a customer's loyalty card, a shopping list prepared on your home computer appears on a personal digital assistant attached to the shopping cart. Scan the items as they go in the cart and the list gets checked off.

Now the only question is when this technology will actually show up in stores. Some are already being tested, but the companies are keeping mum on the locations.

Federated Department Store Chairman and Chief Executive Terry Lundgren has given up worrying about whether is stealing from stores.

Instead, he has vowed to put dollars behind the Internet site.

``I don't have a choice; it's what the customer wants,'' Lundgren said during a panel discussion at the conference. ``They're going to take the business away from my stores anyway and go shop online somewhere else.''

About 40 percent of the U.S. population now shops online, and another 40 percent has researched a product online but purchased it offline. Online sales for 2005 hit $172 billion, and online research is estimated to have influenced another $100 billion in offline sales.


  1. While this could be good in certain situations, I still will always prefer a real life, cheerful happy person over any sort of automation. Not all of my concerns or questions can be anticipated by a company's automated system. Sad

  2. Uneducated salespoeple are problematic, but in this case the cure is worse than the disease.

    Why am I going to the store in the first place if I don't get real live help?

  3. The evolution of "self-service" continues. Retailers love these ideas because it means they have to pay fewer staff. If it means we walk into a store and never deal with a human being, so be it.

    There will be a backlash against this movement Muddy and you understand, there is a "social," human element to shopping that can never be replicated by a computer. It's just good to have a salesperson listen to you, regardless of how much they know.

  4. Retailers need to listen to their own emperical data. It's already been proven that a well-placed human always trumps a computer, even if the computer contains more information.