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The Allure of “Personalized 1:1 Online Customer Experience At Scale” vs The Actuality of Locally Owned Brick and Mortar Stores

Over the coming weeks and months I’m going to blog more. And it will be that kind of blogging where I bang something out in 45 minutes – as an exercise in articulating my thoughts and observations about customer experience, user experience, information architecture, commerce marketing, and so forth. I don’t expect these next posts to be very concise, or to be easily sharable for “5 top things you need to do.” Mostly, it’s time to do the hard work of ‘finding my voice’ – the subject matter and theses that drive me the most. So, here it goes. Comment if you like where things are going.

In my role as Sales Engineer at Bronto [Software LLC, A NetSuite Company], I am privileged to interact with many different commerce-focused businesses on a weekly basis. Different verticals, different sized companies. Some are potential Bronto customers and I’m helping a sales rep with the technical aspect of ‘how Bronto can solve your problems’; others are Bronto customers looking at new marketing initiatives. Between those client interactions and keeping up with the blogosphere (I use Feedly) and teh Twitters, I can see both the real problems marketers face and the enticing concepts they are being bombarded with to solve those problems.

Omni-channel. 360 degree view of the customer. Personalized recommendations. Predictive. Seamless customer journey across devices. Et cetera.

The growth of e-commerce, and specifically, mobile commerce seems like a sure thing, but what’s less sure is how a company can guarantee the kind of visceral, sensory, loyalty-producing shopping experience that can be found in the very antithesis of a digital business – a locally owned store.

Storytime!

A few weeks ago I made my twice yearly 6-mile pilgrimage to Kitchen Works, a mom-and-pop non-franchise kitchen supply store in a smaller mall that is currently redefining itself. Specifically, I went there to get my knives sharpened. They offer this service for quite a reasonable price, and I simply don’t trust my own (lack of) fine motor skills to try to do it myself. So I came in to drop off the knives, but I saw a sign out front saying that all of their German knives were being marked down up to 80%. I wasn’t in the market for a new quality knife, but that kind of markdown was enough to get me to walk over to the corner with all of the nice (usually expensive) knives.

I was quickly overwhelmed at the brands, sizes, and options. If this was an online experience I’d rely on search, reviews, popularity to curate my choices. But instead I asked the nice woman at the counter “Hey, I currently have two knives, one 7″ chef’s knife and one paring knife. If I was looking to expand my portfolio to a third knife, what kind would I want to buy next?” She came over to the knives and her response made her knowledge, experience, and passion quite transparent. She suggested that another 6″ or 7″ knife might be a good choice, as one starts to have more things to prepare or more people to feed, it is helpful to have more than one of the same thing. Specifically she pointed out that at home her own favorite knife is a Wusthof santoku knife, which is a Japanese design that has hollow sections that make onions and such not stick as much when you are chopping. I didn’t know that, but it made a lot of sense. She sure sold me! I haven’t gotten it yet, and I really had to hesitate and pull myself out of “just because it is on sale right now isn’t a good enough reason to make a purchase.”

But it sure did increase my respect for this establishment, which is usually out of my way, and certainly not as convenient as Amazon. Something else happened to really make me think twice about the brick-and-mortar vs online shopping experience; really it struck me so much that I was inspired to write this blog post.

When I came back two days later to pick up the knives I decided to let myself buy a little something. I narrowed in on the idea of a handheld grater. This store had a selection of about 8 or so, some from the same brand but with different designs and price points. A manager came out of the back room and explained to me that I should avoid such and such model because even though these two graters are the same brand, the one on the left is from when the brand sold its intellectual property to a different manufacturer who started making an inferior product that wasn’t as sharp/didn’t last as long. The one on the right the original brand is still allowed to sell under that name and even if it isn’t as pretty looking, it is really a better grater. She had even called up the newer manufacturer to complain about the quality of the product she was now having to buy from them as they continue to release new and related SKUs.

Wow. Let’s unpack that, there is a lot to dig into there. First off, this manager, and her associate were absolutely customer-first in their interaction with me instead of business-first. Here is a manager who probably has decades of experience in the kitchen supplies retail industry, enough so that she has two-way conversations with her wholesalers and manufacturers, mostly on behalf of her own passion for the products, but also so that she can advise her customers. Technically, the thing she was encouraging me to choose was $2 cheaper than the newer crappier thing. But she knew that this wasn’t about margin, this was about not just a sale/conversion, but about creating a loyal customer. And they now have one in me.

What software-based product recommendation engine can parallel that sort of industry knowledge and interactive context? Data-driven engines can say things like “people who bought this bought that” but I got so much more out of the real-world recommendations made by this manager.

And I know that doesn’t scale. I don’t know anything about how well Kitchen Works has been doings or their plans for sustainability or growth. And I know not every person in America who needs a grater has the time or privilege to go out to a store and talk about it. But a story like this certainly sets the bar high for online retailers. I don’t have answers, but this experience certainly made me want to pause and ask questions.

OK. Tangent. Second subject: Marketers talk about how much they like the accuracy and analytical assurance of online marketing. Especially in logged-in context when they can confidently identify individuals (via ID, email address) and study their behavior and preferences with technology. That’s all fine and well, but I don’t know if that is “more data” but rather just “a different data set than what is available to brick-and-mortar stores.” Physical retailers¬†absolutely ‘nurture leads’ inside the store and have data available to them to make judgements and prioritize. The manager could see that I was a male, could look at my clothing and make a reasonable guess about my income level and affluence, could study my body language and infer level of interest in the details of the products, some sense of interest in her recommendations and whether I was likely to buy or want to be left alone. And she could ask me questions and hear me talk. Those are all data streams. And I wonder if those aren’t, at times, more valuable than the digital ones that might be easier to track like “amount of social activity, birthday, first name, past purchase behavior” and so forth. Does the number of times your social follower ‘like’ your posts truly reflect that they are an influencer or a more loyal customer? Or are they just a narcissistic person with not enough disposable income and too much time on their hands?

Final tangent. Third subject. While we are on the subject of the in-store experience as it relates to commerce at scale. Maybe technology solutions aren’t always the best approach to a problem, yeah? For example, I saw an article about a study in RetailWire a few months ago. The research showed that training your retail sales associates can lead to a sales lift of up to 23%. There is an idiom (and a hilarious subreddit) that is the appropriate response: #NoShitSherlock.