Retailers, software might be eating your lunch, but it won’t eat everything
With closures and tech shifts, it looks like hard times for brick-and-mortar retailers. But columnist Chuck Moran says they need to take a page from digital advertising and understand that the human touch still matters.
Run for cover! The “Retail Armageddon” is upon us. At least, that is, if we’re to believe all of the business pub headlines this holiday season. No doubt, things definitely appear to be at their most dire when you’re strolling through the mall, bopping along to “Jingle Bells” and passing shuttered storefront after shuttered storefront. Macy’s, Sears, The Limited, Wet Seal, Radio Shack — the list of major retailers that are closing locations or cashing in their chips altogether seems to go on and on.
It’s an objectively scary time for brick-and-mortar retailers. This disruption is the acceleration of a shift years in the making, as consumer shopping behavior has continued to move online and as the Amazon behemoth has continued to swallow market share in retail sector after retail sector.
No matter your industry — financial services, hospitality, transportation, you name it — there’s an overarching sense that Silicon Valley is coming to eat your lunch. Right now, that’s particularly the case with retailers, whose sales declines and store closings are in a harsh spotlight during the holiday season.
The rise of new disruptive players has fueled the apocalyptic narrative among retailers, as though it’s only a matter of time before the computers take over everything. Artificial intelligence, new e-commerce platforms, automation — soon there will be nothing left for the humans.
Take a breath — and a lesson from digital advertising
But retailers, please. Before you head down into your lead-lined bunkers and tear into your first Mylar package of food rations, take a moment to consider the way this apocalypse narrative has played out in other industries.
It wasn’t long ago that we in the marketing world felt the same way you do right now — that our very purpose was being consumed by, and ultimately fulfilled better by, increasingly clever algorithms and machine learning systems. Indeed, it felt like End of Days, whether you were in the media-buying space, or even the creative department.
But we’re still here.
The last few years have shown us, conclusively, that even in a business dominated by automation (in advertising’s case, programmatic solutions), there’s still a tremendous need for human decision-making and judgment, not to mention creativity. Indeed, human oversight is making a big comeback in advertising, as companies have realized that algorithms alone are not capable of creating and executing emotionally resonant campaigns that drive real business results.
Were jobs lost along the way? Absolutely. But rather than a full-blown apocalypse, marketing’s transformation has proven more akin to a shakeout. The pendulum swung one way — and is swinging back again. Processes were streamlined. Systems were implemented. And ultimately, the humans in the industry have settled into the roles where they truly belong: the ones that require the human touch.
Where the human touch matters
The current shakeouts happening across industries are all about finding the right balance with new automated toolsets and adjusting cultures and processes to harness the new capabilities. Much like marketing before it, retail is struggling to find this balance now. And much like marketing before it, jobs will be lost, businesses upended.
But when the dust settles, brick-and-mortar retailers will still be there. And the ones that have come through the fires will have found their new place within the industry value proposition. Undoubtedly, many of them will be in areas where the human touch is still greatly needed in marketing as well:
• Strategy: Algorithms are great at refining a course, but they’re terrible at setting it themselves. The big decisions still belong to the brains attached to spinal cords. In marketing, this means humans still generate the “big idea.” And in retail, the human touch is still vital in the consultative buying process.
In-store sales professionals who are trained to first listen and then recommend purchases based on need and preference — and then enable the customer to see, feel and try for themselves — will still serve a valuable role within stores.
• Emotionally resonant experiences: Computers still suck at emotions. In marketing, it takes a human mind to develop creative that’s going to speak to a person’s passions and sentimentalities. Likewise, the online shopping experience doesn’t have the capability of stirring emotional reactions quite like a well-designed retail environment.
The power of light and color and scent and texture, the warm connection of knowledgeable and friendly staff — the stores that can deliver these elements in deep, meaningful and novel ways will continue to be valued in the post-apocalyptic retail reality.
• Relationships: And lest we forget, one of the greatest purposes that humans can serve in any industry is by simply being human. We are a society built on relationships, and computers can’t compete there.
In marketing, that might mean maintaining the vital human connection with influencers in each sector. In retail, that means providing service and experience that no chatbot or online customer review can match. The retailers who double down on their customer service and in-store experiences are the ones that will be well-poised to weather the current Amazonian storm.
It’s hard times out there, but it’s not the End of Times. Amid industry change and transformation, the unique value of the human connection will find new roles and expressions adapted to the new technological toolsets at your disposal. While it may be a painful evolution for those in the industry, it’s not an Armageddon.