Will Robots be the New “Associates?”

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It’s zombie-land out there.  Nobody talks anymore.  They tweet and text.  Nobody meets anymore.  They tweet, text, email and occasionally have phone conferences.  And, we don’t need the Manti Te’o hoax (“catfishing” or whatever it is), to know that tweeting, texting, Facebooking, Skyping, falling in love with an avatar on Second Life and whatever else I don’t know about yet, is the new ‘dating.’  Digital simulation and stimulation is the new human touch.
Wow scary!  But, not to get all philosophical on you, what does this have to do with retail strategy? The short answer: everything.

On one level, the virtual world is more awesome, exciting, rewarding, easier, more convenient, less intense, less demanding and so forth, than the real world.  So, on that level, a person might rather be an avatar and get the heck out of this “messy” human world.  And, I fear many of them do just that, at least mentally.  I know I’m exaggerating, but only to make the point.

Anyway, for the majority of us who don’t literally “check out,” retailers must, at the very least, provide as many of the latest gizmos, gadgets, techie toys, videos, etc., both in store and online.  Virtual reality must be as much a part of the shopping “experience” as the store’s real-world restaurants, gelato and coffee stands, fashion shows, and whatever else.

Moving on from the experience aspect, another indication of “machine replacing man” comes out of some Cisco research that finds 85% of consumers want self-service access to digital content in-store (for price comparisons, ratings/reviews and expert advice).  Only 11% want information and advice from store employees and 10% from social networks, and the influence of friends and family has fallen since 2010 from 60% down to 49%.

So, consumers keep raising the bar on experience expectations (both virtual and real), and therefore, retailers must keep raising the bar on the cost of doing business just to stay in the game.  And, of course, on the other hand, they are being sucked under by the vortex of discount pricing, a subject I’ve covered in previous articles.  Certainly, one has to wonder how long this madness will continue.

Well then, will we see the day when robots will replace human associates? Why not? The advancements being made in the land of ‘bots’ is apparently reaching a point when there will be little in the life of human beings that they won’t be able to replicate.  However, if the day does arrive when we will be greeted by a warm and fuzzy tin man, it will most likely have been Nordstrom “programmed,” given their superior understanding and implementation of customer service, (to be covered in the lead article of the upcoming Robin Report).

And, ironically, if the day of retail ‘bots’ does come, and even if they’re Nordstrom programmed, Nordstrom itself will not employ them (even if programmed in-house). Yes, Nordstrom led in technology, perfecting the omnichannel and adding the digital component into its shopping experience.  However, they continue to focus everything they do based on how it will “delight” customers beyond expectation.   And, their top and bottom line numbers, year after year, provide evidence they are enormously successful on the consumer satisfaction meter.

Sure, many retailers and brands are committed to doing the same thing, and many do deliver. However, Nordstrom’s enduring competitive advantage, the “secret sauce” so to speak, that elevates them to another level, are its associates. They are the final human engagement, the individual touching and tipping point that represents the entire DNA and value of the Nordstrom brand at the nano-second the customer is turning their dream into reality, at the point of sale.

Nordstrom associates will never be robots or avatars.  They are the real deal.  They are the best, in fact, so much so that delighted customers may think they have just lived a “second life” moment in a Nordstrom store, which means they will want to keep coming back and back again.



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