Millennial Shopping Experience Series: A Stroll Down Fifth Ave: Digital? Yes. Helpful? Not so much.

Omnichannel retailing is a ubiquitous initiative among retailers today.  It's ambitious, necessary and very challenging.  Each channel reinforces the others and Adam Silverman's digital store work is great stuff advancing the thinking around how retailers are bringing new digital tech into the store environment, putting into customer and store associate hands to drive value.  He writes about it in a recent doc: The Future of the Digital Store.  And, two millennials on our team tested out some digital store experiences recently.   Here is the second in the millennials shopping experience blog series, this one by Laura Naparstek and Diana Gold.

On a recent afternoon, we took a walk down NYC’s Fifth Avenue to discover that many retailers are not always getting the in-store tech game right. This area of Manhattan is like an upscale mall where retailers experiment and test new in-store innovations; however, the technology we saw did little to reduce friction. Many retailers’ in-store tools were cosmetic—or broken.

There’s a lot of buzz about what brands can do when it comes to in-store technology: 3D printing, customization stations, coaching, and the list goes on.  Active wear brands Nike and New Balance, who have major NYC locations across the street from one another, are two examples of brands trying to differentiate their stores. Nike equips its store employees with mobile point-of-service (mPOS) devices to expedite checkout, but the store associates were not wielding the mPOS devices at the time of our visit. Nike’s displays are not interactive and don’t allow the customer to explore product information. They are marketing and branding vehicles. Nike also has a running lab (read: treadmill) that uses cameras to give customers a diagnosis on their unique running style and recommends a sneaker to fit their needs. But no one was using this tool when we visited. The store associate told us that she believes she usually gives a better recommendation based on a customer’s gait than the running lab gives.   

New Balance was more impressive initially. At the front of the store, customers can use the NB Custom 574 station to design their own sneakers on a large touch screen. The interface was a bit slow, but definitely unique and fun. The station included fabric and color swatches so that customers could feel and see what their sneakers would look like. Yet, the experience fell flat when it took ten minutes to print our customized shoes receipt, which we had to walk to the cash wrap station in order to make the purchase. Next to the customization station, was an unmanned New Balance sneaker sewing lab that looked like an Elvin cobbler shop at Disneyworld.  Our expectation was that our custom sneaker would be made there; however, the lab only creates five specific, non-customizable styles on the spot—which begs the question, why don’t they just sell those styles on the shelf?

So what did we learn in these two stores?

1.       When we saw in-store technology, we wanted to interact with it just like nearly half of the US online adults Forrester surveyed who said they are interested in using a shelf-mounted interactive touch screen display while shopping in a physical store. We expected that we could interact with flashy in-store displays: we immediately assumed they were touch screens.

2.       We found that knowledgeable  store associates - even those without access to the latest technology - were better equipped to provide us with product guidance than standalone technologies like in-store displays were. Forrester expects that with time, however, associates will be empowered with technology to provide an even more powerful experience that addresses core pain points.

3.       Beyond the big display screens placed in the store, we had to ask for service technology like mPOS devices:  We were unaware that Nike had mPOS devices because they were hidden behind the register until we spoke with a store associate.