Whether you're the market leader or a local startup, The Brand Show offers ideas and insights to help you grow your retail brand. Through expert articles and thought-leader interviews, we look at the brands, trends and shopper marketing strategies that shape our retail world.
Earlier this month, TV quiz show Jeopardy featured two former champions playing against a computer named Watson. While the story of man versus machine is as old as John Henry and the Industrial Age, the ending was a new one. In a Terminator-style twist, the machine dominated the humans.
What, as retail marketers, can we learn from this demonstration of silicon superiority? For starters, Watson is a wake-up call to anyone who may still have a “wait-and-see” attitude toward technology. Sophisticated digital retail experiences aren’t ten years away—they’re right here, right now.
The truth is, we’re at a digital tipping point. Over the next year, we will see more innovation in the retail channel than we have seen in the last decade, if not last century. This rapid introduction, adoption and evolution of retail technologies will fundamentally change the shopper experience forever. And for the better.
Already, many of retail’s vanguard brands have launched digital in-store experiences that engage shoppers with personalized content via place-based and mobile technologies. But even progressive retailers such as Disney and Best Buy can’t keep pace with the continuous flow of digital advancements and the corresponding expectations of connected shoppers. (Coincidently, IBM, the good folks behind Watson, even coined a term to describe these smarter, digitally armed shoppers: “instrumented” consumers.)
So, how on Earth can a retailer tame the runaway technology trend? To answer that question, I’ll defer to an expert who knows a little something about man versus machine conflict: science fiction author Isaac Asimov. In his book, I, Robot, Asimov offers his Three Laws of Robotics to ensure humans aren’t harmed by robotic technology:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
To be fair, mobile devices, kiosks and digital signage are hardly the sinister cybernetic threat Asimov envisioned. However, I believe marketers need a set of rules to ensure retail technology doesn’t harm human experience inside their stores.
I suggest the Three Laws of Retail Technology go something like this:
1. Retail technology may not injure customer experience or, through inaction, allow customer experience to come to harm. Translation: digital retail initiatives must enhance and extend offline channels rather than create isolated, competitive experiences. More importantly, retail technologies should protect valuable customer relationships.
2. Retail technology must obey any orders given to it by customers, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Translation: digital retail initiatives must put the customer in control of the experience provided that authority does not hinder cross-channel integration.
3. Retail technology must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Translation: digital retail initiatives must be stable, secure and redundant, so customers who rely on them are never frustrated by system outages or failures. This law also implies that retail marketers must become marketing technologists to serve and protect the initiatives they create.
Retail may be becoming more digital, but that certainly doesn’t mean it has to become less human. The promise of retail technology is this: done well, it will create an in-store experience that is more intuitive, more meaningful and more human. It will treat shoppers as unique individuals and allow people to express themselves through experiences that are personal, social, co-creative and playful.
Given this vision of the future, I’m excited about the potential of retail technologies and can’t help but recall Jeopardy star Ken Jennings’s message after Watson’s win: “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”
- Ethan Whitehill, host and contributor of The Brand Show and CEO at Two West, Inc.