That was the gist of a panel moderated by Al McClain, CEO and founder of RetailWire.com at last week’s d2 (digital dialogue) Conference in Cincinnati. On his panel discussion, McClain welcomed Phil Rubin, founder and CEO of rDialogue, a loyalty and relationship marketing firm; Aliza Perruzzi, director of marketing for Century 21 Department Stores; and Bob Phibbs, a sales trainer, author and customer service champion as well as founder of The Retail Doctor & Associates.
Right away, McClain asked for a show of hands with this question, which I will paraphrase: Who thinks the trend toward equipping stores with tablet-enabled salespeople is customer service positive? Nearly everyone in the audience raised a hand, including me.
I’m on the side of technology that allows associates to check inventory and place online orders. It’s the reason I had no problem enthusiastically sticking my hand in the air. And I had every right to be pro tablet—part of my conference ensemble was the direct result of an iPad-toting J. Crew employee. Of course, I was shopping for something new the very weekend before the conference (doesn’t the everywoman when nothing in the closet will work?). “Katie” at the Kenwood store (who recognized me from my failed mission the day before) found my size and color, swiped my card and I was on my way, with fingers crossed that the sleeveless knit top with the season’s must-have peplum would reach me in time. Plus, if I’d ordered online there would be no additional 30 percent off my clearance selection, which of course was now a non-refundable purchase, plus there would be a shipping charge.
Rubin and Perruzzi were okay with iPads in-store, and Century 21, which operates self-service stores, was already testing them. But, it didn’t take Phibbs long to be the panel’s lone contrarian, saying multitasking, tablet-bearing associates are distracted by their devices and therefore pay less attention to customer service. Cost-cutting is the real motivation behind in-store technology, he says, not improving service.
Whoa, I’m sitting there thinking, what does this Phibbs guy not get about the beauty of finding my selection in another store and getting it to me so I had something to wear in this clear clothing crisis? But, I contained myself until after the session’s close. I introduced myself and said a few things, but not about Katie at J. Crew. See Katie didn’t greet me at the door holding the iPad while surfing. It was only after she assisted me—sans device—that she turned to the tablet to check inventory and, in so doing, solved my wardrobe problem.
What I did say to Phibbs had more to do with my observations about the commoditized fashion industry and the disdain most retailers have for customers, but most of all their employees. It’s nothing personal, Phibbs says, it’s just they’re a drain on profitability in the eyes of bean-counting CEOs. Score one for Phibbs.
So, here’s part of what the doctor wrote online to McClain’s recap of the session:
“Let’s be clear here, I’m not some Luddite saying ban technology. Untrained, bored, disengaged employees are still just as deadly on the sales floor with a tablet. The experience a tablet offers lazy employees means they don’t have to check the rack, check on the customer, or make eye contact. The employees serve the machines, not the customers. Big miss in my opinion. Huge.”
I may disagree with Phibbs on the tech play, but we did agree that too much merchandise, too much sameness and too many discounts are equal culprits in why everyone pretty much doesn’t love the retail experience, no matter how great the stores look.
Looking for opinions and prescriptions. Thanks to technology, it’s easy to leave ‘em here.