How Belief and Disbelief (Nearly) Destroyed Retail

November 5, 2015 | IN Clienteling, Retail | BY Amelia Curwen

I remember when e-tailing, as they used to call it, appeared on the world wide web. It was around the same time that banner ads discovered a purpose, a call to action. Buy! Buy! They would scream at you, hoping the noise and supposed romanticism of being able to source the world for the exact thing you wanted would drown out the uncertainty brought about by horrible, doubt-inflicting UX and, at that stage, a fairly undeveloped shipping industry that relied on the government’s offerings to deliver that costly, sight-unseen offering safely to your door.

Companies that figured out their online sales portal early, like Apple, Amazon, Zappos and Blue Nile, injected confidence and faith into the purchase process. Meanwhile, seeing this happen before their very eyes, the industrious folks at FedEx and UPS quickly realized their business could triple overnight if they too got their shit together. OK, it wasn’t that quick, but point is, online sales across every category – even diamonds – took off, leaving retailers barely enough time to even see their own wounds, let alone lick them.

What does an animal do when backed into a corner?

What does a man do when faced with death or survival?

Whatever it takes.

And that ‘whatever’ was to build out the most potent online sales portals they could. They could see the script in front of them: retail would continue further and further into the abyss. But, like a Jaguars fan, they refused to accept that things were going to get worse before they got better.

This sent retailers scrambling. Desperation sends one to dark places, and most in this case involved the tantalizing bait that is a percentage off sign attached to a large number – and lay-offs. Finding a customer service professional in most retailers is harder than finding a vegetarian burger in Idaho. Small spikes in sales kept corporate retail executives employed. But little did they realize the irreparable damage massive discounts were doing to their brands.

People stayed away from storefronts in droves, believing, correctly, that there was a better deal online.

To suggest people were jaded with the retail experience would be like suggesting Alaska is “frigid” in January.

Adding aftershocks to the e-tail tsunami, the early social networks like MySpace and Friendster, and, later, Facebook, didn’t just permit us to interact and develop ‘relationships’ without face-to-face interaction, they gave us the tools to do just that. This naturally spilled into our brand relationships, which started to lose their pulse. The less human interaction the better. The fewer clicks to purchase, the better.

Meanwhile, VPs of e-sales were heralding the new age of retail and cashing their bonus checks, funded by the decimated overheads of bricks and mortar – and less staff.

If that wasn’t enough, e-tailers dissolved, one-by-one, the final barrier to purchase – “What if it doesn’t fit? What if she doesn’t like it?” – with free returns.

The nail wasn’t just in the retail coffin, it was through the other side and fastened shut with Gorilla Grip.

That was the belief, anyway.

Survival is a funny thing, though. It makes you do things you didn’t think you’d ever do again.

Like turn back the clock. Jump into that DeLorean and hit the 1990s again.

But with new weapons.

By design or luck, a cultural pendulum was swinging back to human interactions. People woke up. Consumers became participants. No longer just faceless purchasers and a set of random numbers, people, participants, desired more than their data points suggested.

“Where is the customer service?”

How do you think many retailers responded, when they’d effectively been hibernating for nearly a decade as nothing more than expensive supporting actors?

They came up with Houdini-like solutions that were sparse and prohibitively expensive. More than one VP of Retail suggested re-adding bodies to the sales floor. The bean counters were enormously unimpressed. CEOs couldn’t see how increased retail sales forces could be more effective at their jobs without expensive training programs.

Ironically, it was technology that brought the flux capacitor out of mothballs. The tech geeks saw an open opportunity that was too juicy to ignore.

The artillery they needed was there, in the form of reams of data.

Participants’ tastes weren’t just calculated in what they bought. Right in front of them they could see their aspirations: what they looked at. What they dreamed of buying.

What they hadn’t yet bought, but might one day.

Past, current and future retail behavior could be predicted– based on their online habits.

Dogs are cats. Black is white. The Jags win a Super Bowl.

Armed with this data through iBeacons linked to SalesForce data, like ours, customer service professionals can serve up the pulse of a brand that participants have been missing, itching scratches that participants don’t even know they have yet.

**It’s not about more sales people, it’s about smarter sales people.**

The power of belief perhaps shows her potency most when she is the opposite. Disbelief that there is a way out, a better way forward, drives us to create what we never thought we could.

I guess us humans love a challenge, hey?

Sam Saunders is Head of Creative for Proximity insight.
Sam is currently consulting to Apple in Cupertino on a range of global integrated and retail creative projects.