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The Average Joe’s Retail Manifesto (Or, Why Can’t I Turn on the TV?)

I was recently cited in an article for CIO magazine on the impact of technology on the retail sector. The interview for the piece, conducted by retail beat veteran Sharon Goldman, was a bit awkward, as Sharon repeatedly – and patiently – asked more or less the same question in different ways, as I struggled to respond. We went back and forth a bit, and finally got to where we seemed to understand one another.

I subsequently wondered why I had such a block and it occurred to me that, while Sharon was approaching her questions from the viewpoint of the sales associate using the technology, I was approaching the questions from the consumer’s point of view. This led to further musing and to another question, one that we don’t seem to pay that much attention to, namely: how does the new technology being deployed in retail environments impact actual customers?

But first, let me digress.

Last week I stayed in a hotel room unlike any I had ever seen – wired floor-to-ceiling with tablets, smart TV, game panel and a cockpit-like “technology center” wired for sound and filled with connectors, buttons and cables.

I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the TV.

Now, I’ve been in the technology business for almost 40 years. I love having all the latest gadgets and do all I can to take advantage of technology to simplify everyday activities. So while I’m not a tech-savvy millennial or an 8-year-old prodigy, I think I’m at least an above-average consumer when it comes to understanding of technology tools. And yet, there I was in that hotel room, searching in vain for an old-fashioned, germ-laden remote. I finally gave up and walked to the lobby to see what was on the big screen.

But back to my point. Consider the retail industry’s vision of you, the “connected customer:” You order food from a tablet, pay with a phone and pick up your special order exactly where it should be… When you’re shopping for clothes, smart shelves point you to just the right shirt in just the right size and color… You pick up what you want, bypass the cashier’s line and head for the automated check-out and – oops, let’s stop right there. How well does automated check-out work now? In most stores, you’ll see the self-checkout line empty or thinly used, even if the regular lines are backed up. There’s a reason for that.

Which begs the question: What about the truly average consumer? Someone who still has a flip phone (or no phone), someone who doesn’t have an iPad and listens to a Walkman, and plays vinyl and doesn’t even know that it’s trendy. While these consumers may be decidedly uncool, and while they may never darken the doors of a digital media agency’s focus group, their money is as good as anybody’s.

It seems that many retailers today have become so enamored with technology and its potential capabilities, and so consumed with the competitive chase to implement the latest innovation, that they’re losing sight of what customers actually want. And while there’s no denying the existence of an uber-cool demographic that responds to and demands the most advanced and sophisticated connected customer experience possible, a sizable portion of consumers are happy with keeping – or longing to return to – an old-fashioned store experience with shelves, carts and coupons.

In my opinion truly savvy retailers will increasingly recognize and appreciate these differences and will take a more measured, managed and transitional approach to moving to a connected customer environment. I think we’ll see more segmented and inclusive retail strategies, characterized by a wider range of solutions that align with different preferences of different types of customers. And as retailers execute those more nuanced strategies, we’ll see closer collaboration between marketing and technology teams.