So far this year, how many times have you been asked about your predictions for the store of the future? If you’re anything like me, the answer is too many times to count.
It’s both natural and correct that our industry is obsessed with the future, given the pace of change in retailing over the past decade or so – not to mention the constantly shifting shape of customers. But sometimes I wonder if our desire to understand the future prevents us from understanding what’s happening in front of our noses today: our customers’ wants and needs, right here, right now. We all need to be on the front foot in retail, but are we leading change, or letting change lead us?
To understand retail’s future, it helps to take a look through the lenses of the past and present. The past, for me, always comes back to the value of service: the warm welcome, the helpful advice and the personal relationships that have fuelled the industry from day one. These human connections are retail’s ‘magic dust’ and they are the keys to retail’s success in the decades to come. They can never be delivered by chatbots or algorithms, but they absolutely can be enhanced by technology – when it’s in the hands of the people who serve customers locally at retail’s frontline.
We saw over and over again during the pandemic just how much we relied on store teams for their role in holding our communities together. Retail leaders can’t forget that now. In fact, quite the opposite. We need to find ways to overhaul outdated processes built up over decades that have been stifling the capabilities of frontline staff. If anything is going to define stores in the future, it will be this, an employee revolution – driven by technology, but perhaps not the tech revolution everyone has been expecting. This is about liberating employees and keeping them relevant, with the power and autonomy to better serve the needs of their own customers in their own stores.
When it comes to the present, this to me means finding ways to be in the moment with customers, wherever they are in their journey with your brand. Facilitating real, personal interactions between shopper and staff member and finding new ways to link the online experience and physical store presence. Making it as easy for store staff to tune in and talk to customers when they’re messaging on an app, as when they’re standing face to face on the shop floor. And acting immediately on feedback and insights, with local store teams taking personal ownership of customer satisfaction to drive loyalty from the grassroots up.
It’s safe to say the urgent debate about the ‘store of the future’ is not leaving the top of retail’s agenda any time soon. But don’t think the answers always lie in discarding the old in favour of the shiny and new. Good stores will always be about good staff and close customer relationships. At its very best, technology is helping to map out a future for stores that brings those human values back into retail’s future.