Our Digital Utopia

- in ARTICLES, The Drum
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As the world becomes increasingly digitally focused, I predict that an already growing desire for authenticity, quality, originality and most importantly, experience, will come to the fore, growing in value beyond the usual projected trappings of wealth and perceived success. Experiences will become currency, ethical ones will offer the highest value and will become ‘cultural movements’ around trust, values and inspiration, rather than simply trends….

Every aspect of our digitally connected lives will be affected, as much or as little as we individually choose. Through a harmonised, digitally integrated existence we are able to enhance the quality of our lives like never before, we can ensure the experiences that we value are heightened, easily shared, real and utterly convenient… authenticity, updated for our digital age.

There is already a passion for an increase in small, local stores, selling local produce; micro breweries, home made bread, even hygge..! Service levels and human interaction are increasing as shoppers start to value time, quality, health and sustainability over a norm of exotic range and suspiciously low prices. No longer will we be sold to, we will buy how, what and when we choose and this will all be based on our experiences of products and lifestyle, curated with online discussion groups, experience centres, ‘life-trials’, if you will… More commonplace will be brand collaborations like the Soho Home concept, where cool, creatives-only, members club, Soho House (which some may consider to be a ‘cultural movement’) has collaborated with Liberty of London to sell a curated range of their club furniture in-store. The goods available range from a “Chesterfield you can sit on at Soho House Chicago, to the Berkwell crystal you drink your Negroni from at 76 Dean Street”, explains Soho House Founder, Nick Jones.

Physical experience is becoming ever more integrated into our digital lives and digital experience into our physical ones, allowing for a return to the desire for emotional connection through sensorial engagement, but in a new, intuitive, convenient way, that is linked to our lifestyles, delivered how and when we want it.

We now see a movement for seamless connection with quality, digital solutions; from super fast, affordable home broadband, to tastefully discreet wearable tech. How we live, how we work and spend our relaxation time, has changed exponentially since the birth of the Smart Phone, so what’s next and specific to this post, how will it affect our customer content experience at retail?

Experience is king and our most valued asset; people will still spend ‘money’ and expend resources in retail, but I believe that in the near future, the concept of a store will not be focused on sales, in fact shops will not ‘sell’ anything in the traditional sense. Shops, with the exception of those based solely around convenience and price, will be places to experience brands, experience and create a buzz around trends; they will be meeting places of the like-minded, same tribe enthusiasts… advocates.

How we pay for goods and services will also change and is changing. I expect many more stores to create customer accounts like Amazon, some will build on loyalty cards to create payment opportunities. There is also discussion about Bitcoin, the Sharing Community (now this is certainly a ‘cultural movement’), as well as others… I believe that the way we ‘pay’ for goods is still in its infancy of development, like moving away from fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine… at the moment there are many possible futures, but we are yet to settle on the perfect solution.

Through connected links to our homes, like the Amazon Dash button, store hosts, digital and human, will expect and be prepared for the customer’s visit with a personal welcome; clear, personalised navigation to products of known interest and carefully selected, ‘disruptive’, suggestions of new ones. The customer experience will become much more tailored for a personalised journey across channels, engaging at home, on the bus and in-store. What I’ve previously described as ‘channel osmosis’.

So, what really is the value of the use of digital in a retail arena? Sure, we can shout about our brands and offers, dazzle customers with colour and demonstrate how modern we are and in-tune with perceived customer expectations… one step ahead of the Jones’s. If, however, the customer experience is to be more personalised and convenient, isn’t digital really about helpfulness, the opportunity to engage with the customer, let them find out more about what they might want to buy, its provenance and its means of delivery. Amazon is so successful because it doesn’t use digital for digital’s sake, digital is the essence of its being, without a digital platform Amazon couldn’t exist.

My point here is that digital is a desired support rather than a desired outcome. Amazon sells Kindle Fire tablets, not to make money on the tablet, but to enable customers to use the tablet as a portal into their digital shopping experience. This is about access to the Amazon digital channel, when they take their brand into a bricks and mortar channel, a retail store environment, the customer journey isn’t visibly a digital one. If we look at ‘Amazon Go’ this is about using digital as a super-convenient way of physically shopping for groceries, as I mention above, with their ‘Just walk out technology’, there is no need for in-store payment as the store knows who the customer is, has their account details and is fully aware of all the items that they are taking from store. In my opinion, this is digital done at its best. The store isn’t lit up like Piccadilly Circus with digital offers competing for the customer’s attention, it’s just there to be helpful, not distracting or annoying.

Another great example of digital used for the right reasons is obviously Coop-Italia, I say obviously because, since I re-posted this article on my LinkedIn feed, it’s had over 25,000 views and lots of comments from all over the world, meaning that first of all people are very aware of the project and more importantly, this is a subject that the readers here find exciting and relevant to current thinking about retail, design and content marketing. The use of digital screens in this environment is good because they again are there to be helpful, have a look at this interview with Gabriele Tubertini, the CIO at Coop-Italia.

However, if i have a problem with this amazing technologically advanced store environment, it is that it seems to be a one trick pony… all of its efforts and engagement are around the digital landscape, the rest of the store looks quite cold and unfriendly, it certainly doesn’t make me think about food. It’s clever, but is it somewhere I’d like to spend time? I’m not sure. Also, those screens over the produce are very high, an area usually reserved for navigation… do customers really look this high up for inspiration or engagement, or should the screens be placed lower down, at product level, where there’s more opportunity for interaction?

So, if the examples so far are ‘best in class’, what do I think is a bad use of digital in-store? When there is no content of value to the customer experience… If all that screens do is shout about the Brand Experience message, repeated from the out of store experience; when in-store digital engagement means browsing the retailer’s website at a digital kiosk, that is only there to pay lip service to critics who think that certain retailers are behind the times. These are examples of digital being used with no benefit for the customer experience, they are poor examples of channel osmosis as neither of them improve the customer experience, nor do they enhance the quality of the channel that they represent or are intended for.

Let’s face it, living in the UK we live in a fully connected, digital world; I began this blog, making notes with my Apple Pencil on my iPad, later I developed some first thoughts on my phone while stood on a crowded tube, this was then transferred to my iPad at home on the sofa (and in bed) and then finally onto my MacBook Pro, before being emailed for comments and publishing on bobcm.net. Finally I posted this onto my LinkedIn feed, Tweeted that I’d written it and put another instalment on Facebook… not a pen nor a piece of paper in sight; the digital technology accessed through a number of connected, easy to use interfaces was all I required to share my thoughts with potentially thousands of my peers. The use of digital has empowered me as thinker to share in a way that I couldn’t have imagined only, say ten years ago. Digital is brilliant, it’s inspiring and it’s unimaginably convenient.

My point is that if brands and retailers are to demonstrate to their customers that they are indeed cutting edge, contemporary and relevant to their customers lives, then they need to show that they understand how customers behave and what they want from their digital or ‘connected’ customer experience. Customers shouldn’t be patronised by brands pretending to understand their needs by simply installing digital screens throughout the store or trying to sell products with VR, AR or even AI; these are just tools, facilitators that may be very successfully employed, with the right content and guidance, to help customers to engage with and gain greater understanding of products that they are interested in buying at the right moment in the customer journey. They should not be confused with being the purpose of the customer journey, nor the sole solution to customer engagement or brand advocacy issues. Digital screens should not be moving billboards to promote external advertising messages masquerading as customer experience. Let’s not mistake ‘wallpaper’ and ‘interference’ with ‘communication’ and ‘disruption’… the latter makes for a varied, insightful and multi-paced experience; the former, for a confusing, sometimes annoying and instantly forgettable one.

This is the fourth in series of articles by Creative Director Andy Barlow that looks at how creating ‘content’ experiences can bring brands can get closer to their customers both physically and emotionally.

About the author

Creative Director for high performing retail experience environments