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Human interaction must be a counterpart to technology in retail spaces

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Do people really want to be entertained as they shop, or are they just expecting the act of shopping to be entertaining? The distinction between the two are clear: forces act upon the consumer in the former scenario, while the consumer initiates forces upon the environment in the latter. I think smart retailers have figured out that the answer is a mixture of both, and are looking for new ways to introduce these opportunities into their branded environments.

I took my daughter with me on my pilgrimage to check out the new Urban Outfitters on 34th Street last week. I like to bring her along on scouting trips whenever I can. She’s a part of “Generation Z” (defining ranges vary, but roughly covers birth years 1995-2009). Her perspective is a blend of her Gen Y older cousins, and her mom who straddles boomers and Gen X.

I don’t pretend to know the stats on these kids, but I think they’re interesting in that some of their perspectives are somewhat more mature, or rather, discriminating, than their Gen X and Y counterparts. Some would call them “old souls.” These kids seem to hold the value proposition as a higher driver to customer loyalty than their older peer groups and are less susceptible to all the trappings of a fancy environment. I suspect this to be an outcome of the Great Recession, and having their spending habits curbed early on by parents that either lost their jobs or faced not receiving a raise for a few years despite the rising cost of living.

End sidebar, now back to my pilgrimage.  I enjoyed the new Urban Outfitters flagship tremendously.

A wonderful mixture of distressed motifs and impactful visual merchandising, brilliantly supplemented with the “Hairroin” hair salon and the Intelligentsia Coffee shop. I had a great time flitting about and taking it all in, although I did not partake in coffee (although many were), nor did I avail myself of the opportunity to get my hair done. I did, however, end up buying a Keith Haring/Junk Food T-shirt exclusive to Urban.

My daughter was quite content crashing on a very comfy chaise in one of the rooms on the main floor, texting & Instagramming away. She liked the store environment very much, but had no interest in the wares, except for film refills for her Fuji Instax Mini, which were featured in a small area near the entrance. But instead of asking me to get the product then and there, she had checked it out on Amazon while lounging, found it at a significantly lower price , and added it to my Amazon wish list for future purchase. She’s 15. I’ve either trained her well or this is a trend. I strongly suspect the latter.

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About two months ago, I took my daughter and two of her friends on a shop-a-long at Jersey Gardens. We were pitching a potential client for a new project and I thought it would be interesting to share with the client direct perspectives straight from the mouths of their demographic. So off we went and I dragged them to the client’s store plus four of their competitors.

Their reactions were very interesting, and in some cases quite counter to what I expected. They were, like most adults, put off by messy stores. They didn’t want to be struggling with product smashed together and tangled hangers. They wanted clear signage within the store so they could find their desired product. They were attracted to bright colors and a cheerful environment. They didn’t like it dark and moody, which has been a real trend for teen retailers for as long as I can remember. It seems teens are moody enough and don’t need any help becoming moodier.

The biggest thing I discovered was that this group of teens crave customer service. They want and need guidance. This need is perhaps because they’re just embarking on shopping on their own, and their skills for self-navigation have yet to be honed. Or perhaps, again, this is a trend.

I’ve preached this before: that sales staff are the retailer’s brand ambassadors. They are your first line of defense against being overtaken by online retailers. My fear is that as technology is increasingly introduced to stores, retailers will feel they have the opportunity to reduce staff and associated overhead costs. Not so – I think it’s actually the opposite.

Technology allows retailers to heighten their level of customer service, not offset the human element. Technology should allow for the upsell, educate the customer on product information or brand heritage, but never replace the one-on-one connection between sales associates and customers. People still need to connect with people.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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