This post originally published on the Guardian Media Network, Technology in Retail Hub, Aug 2012
As technology leaps forward, we find it integrating in every aspect of our lives. New behaviours form and become insidious to the point where service providers need to run to catch up with the changing expectations of their customers.
The influx of technological access to services, and retail in particular, has opened many doors: channels for convenient purchasing, direct contact with a range of customers through social media, and directed advertising. However, we cannot forget the importance of the classic jaunt of shopping on the high street - it is social, advisory and at a point where we need it more than ever.
What is the appeal that still remains for physically shopping on the high street? Economics aside, there is still real demand for competing against the delayed gratification of online retail - it's there, in your hand and in your elegant bag; it's advised by attractive people who know their stuff and is augmented by spaces and places: large and illuminated.
A key differentiator of this experience - and it is experiential by nature - is customer service; face-to-face interactions, advice and support in a branded environment that customers identify with. Tech is sexy, intuitive, and distinct, but it's also there to augment the customer's experience, not to eclipse it.
For Engine Service Design, work that we traditionally do in the retail sector is service re-design: improving the customer experience. Driven by need, it meets the needs of retailers to keep up with customers and their expectations and the need of customers for their services to react to how they're behaving.
Once needs are identified they can be met, and this often includes designing concepts supported by tech. The key point here though, is the difference between displaying a technological asset and providing a technological solution. The challenge is to avoid just having an asset that looks good and masks an average service or experience. To develop a strong service system needs a customer-centric approach. It is then that technology solutions can be used most effectively for the experience as a whole: fully integrated and not outdating quickly.
Engine was lucky to be involved with such a project - a juicy piece of business modelling and vision creation with an established but forward-thinking organisation. Philips Lighting had spotted the product to service shift, and established a new ventures team, Philips Retail Solutions (PRS), to explore options of service provision in retail.
For Philips, their motivation was both the needs of customers and the capability of their technology products. They had developed the innovative hardware and software to create multi-sensorial and interactive in-store experiences and identified a market opportunity in the retail industry to create distinctive, branded experiences. Acting as a consultancy to retail clients, their aim was to provide solutions for clients who provided solutions for customers.
Engine's involvement was to support Philips to define the new service: including the business model, value propositions, concepts and the platform to manage the service. We undertook research with interaction and retail designers, store, sales and retail managers, drawing out insights from the industry - the sector's evolutionary nature and the value of delivering multi-channel experiences. Similarly, we explored some of the barriers to change and the necessity of small pilots to demonstrate results.
When designing the business offer, we used customer insights, brand values and business goals to create principles that define the user experience across all channels. These principles also make up the distinct offer of PRS and what needs they help their clients to meet - simplifying in-store management, aligning business targets and managing their resources; learning from them and evolving experiences. One of the key selling points of the offer was its measurability and built-in analysis tools - multi-sensorial is one thing but measuring the reactions of your customers to it is one step more; providing data on reactions and purchase behaviour for individual items, ranges, seasons and stores as a whole.
As part of the delivery of the project, we developed the story of a PRS pilot project for a mobile operator as part of a range of communications to support the new venture. T-Mobile saw the benefit of attracting customers to their products through customer interaction that resonated with the products themselves: interactive and explorable. PRS created a set of interactive window displays called 'digits', which reacted to the movements of customers passing by and invited further engagement and exploration with individual digits serving as product displays in-store.
It is examples like this, and the work that PRS has gone on to do, that demonstrate the success of a user-centred process that happily meets the client and customer needs and also provides a stage for the exciting capabilities that technology can provide to deliver powerful and distinct experiences.