Guest Editorial: Robots Are Already Working Retail

by MR Magazine Staff

Jack Abelson argues that a robotic adherence to sales and promotions misses the chance to create a bond with shoppers.

Jack Abelson-FEATUREDRecent articles have discussed the appearance of robots in warehouses to pull merchandise for delivery and further speculated upon what other functions these machines could perform in the retail industry. One example given is to replace salespeople on the selling floor, with customers ordering on the robot and it going to get the item(s) for them. Hopefully many of you reading this will be appalled to think of such a scenario as the future but it is too late for fear; the robots already exist in stores! Or so it would seem.

No matter where I enter, the person encountering me is only too happy to begin the conversation by telling me, in robotic style, what is a) on sale and/or b) what the promotion(s) is for the day. Now, I must admit I enjoy the mental gymnastics involved in determining what, exactly, an item will cost after the reductions, as it keeps one’s mind sharp. But seriously, is this the best lead you’ve got? Why do you presume I am solely focused on price? It is as if nothing else matters and that’s just plain wrong!

Those of you who have read my prior musings, and I know you are legion, have seen the proposition that it is value, and not price alone, which determines whether or not a customer buys; the concept of value encompasses far more factors than merely price. Therefore, would it not be better to, upon encountering a shopper, extol the newest and best you have to offer? Should you not pique the person’s interest and get them excited about being in your store? Sales exist everywhere; what makes you think yours is so special? Isn’t selling really about creating a bond with a consumer and letting their emotions take over when they see inspiring merchandise?

I was fortunate enough to have been taught by the best; one of my early mentors advised me to always “show the good goods first.” That referred to starting at the top as you can always go down, while the reverse is much harder to accomplish. Of course, this was before the maniacal focus on price which now mistakenly rules, but it still represents an applicable mantra to heed. Get the customer worked up and literally salivating for your merchandise! You cannot lose because, trust me, the consumer will tell you what he is thinking. If it is truly about sale (and I concede sometimes it is), you will know soon enough, so please do not presume anything! And, at least, you have introduced them to something exciting in your store; if all you have to offer is sale, you have very little indeed!

Every retailer must stay relevant, as relevance is the secret to survival. Once you lose your relevance, the end is near and, if you do not believe me, just ask Radio Shack. Speaking of shacks, some of you may recall my extolling Shake Shack striving to progress by cutting the french fries fresh on site, rather than flying in frozen potatoes, even though this changed method would increase costs. This was done to improve the product, adding value to further entice the customer, and thus relying on providing more benefit to drive sales. I am not arguing that this alone accounted for their recently floated spectacular IPO, but it does indicate a culture where cutting costs is not paramount and price has very little to do with success, as Shake Shack is hardly the least expensive alternative by any means.

So let us please forget the constant barrage of messages about price and focus on the three elements of success in retail: Compelling merchandise, presented in a compelling manner, and sold by knowledgeable, well trained and well compensated people (not robots). We do not have to complicate the equation any more than this!