The Era of Techno Retail


Michael Tchong, the founder of MacWEEK magazine and ICONOCAST, spoke to retailers at the Las Vegas Market about the future of technology and its effect on the industry.

“In this self-indulgent world of ours, taking photos of ourselves has become a sport,” notes Michael Tchong, who is also the founder of Social Revolution®, the author of Social Engagement Marketing, and the founder of the ubercool™ Web site.

While he joked that “screen sucking” (the amount of time people spend looking at things online) and “social not-working” (versus networking) happen to all of us, there is no denying the significance that social media and wireless technology has had on all of our lives today — and most importantly, our businesses.

“We’ve already seen huge changes at retail,” he noted. “Approximately 70 percent of Americans haven’t been to a book store in years. He referenced how the “Greyfield Trend” is very real (the term “greyfield” was coined in a study jointly published by the Congress for the New Urbanism and PriceWaterhouseCooper to refer to the sites of derelict shopping centers or so-called “dead malls” often characterized by the vast empty asphalt parking lots that surround them. Source: Atlanta Regional Commission)

“The tapestry of our lives is becoming digitized,” Tchong said, adding, “Customers are using digital devices while they shop in stores.” Similarly, brands are now selling more than products. He mentioned how activewear giant Adidas® has gone interactive (i.e. its MiCoach product line uses smartphones’ built-in GPS to track the user’s workouts in detail plus provides voice coaching and customized training programs. Its MiCoach line of products, such as the SMART BALL soccer ball measures the speed, trajectory, spin, and strike accuracy of each kick).

“In the age of wireless retail, we need to bring people into our stores,” Tchong remarked. “Think about how you can simplify things for your customer. Generation X, which I call Generation X-tasy, has the attitude of ‘Been there, done that.’ It has to be an experience for them or else they don’t want to do it.” Among the retailers Tchong noted who excel at “experiential retailing” is Urban Outfitters. “Try to create an experience of no equal,” he advised.

Tchong also pointed to Umpqua Bank as a firm that provides a unique experience for customers. While he noted that one branch (note: the bank prefers the term “stores”) has the ambiance of being in a residential dining room, an article printed March 10 in the Portland Business Journal details a similar vibe for its new downtown Portland location. According to staff reporter Matthew Kish, it provides a comprehensive library that is available to customers and non-customers alike, who can sit and read the books on the spot or take them home. “We want people to hang out,” Eve Callahan, Senior Vice President/Corporate Communications told Kish. “We want the store to be relevant in the community.”

The article points out that Umpqua also offers a proprietary blend of coffee, dispenses free dog treats, and contains a lobby phone that dials directly to the desk of CEO Ray Davis.

Even the great American pastime of going to the ballpark has become an enhanced “experience” through wireless technology. Tchong named Major League Baseball’s Ballpark app as an example. This app personalizes the fan’s experience with mobile check-in, social media, offers, rewards, and exclusive content. (Select MLB ballparks offer the capability to order food and merchandise wirelessly at the game plus enjoy upgrades.)

With wireless retailing capabilities, “It’s time you come to the customer and not the customer coming to you,” Tchong stated. For example, the Square app allows retailers to ring up a sale without having to rely on a POS terminal.

“There is a huge revolution in place regarding mobile marketing,” he explained. “It’s not just about speeding up the process of shopping for the customer.” He referenced Swirl, an end-to-end mobile marketing platform that enables brands and retailers to engage consumers while they shop. (Swirl’s technology uses a smartphone user’s precise location within a store to deliver relevant content that engages shoppers and ultimately influences purchase decisions.) Tchong suggested that stores that are loaded with SKUs and difficult to navigate might find success with this type of mobile marketing approach.

Another phenomenon Tchong mentioned was “mobile retailing” as witnessed by the popularity of food trucks. People who love food trucks regularly use mobile apps to find out where their favorite truck is located on a given day.

“It’s about helping customers find you,” Tchong said, mentioning the company called Dónde, which (according to the company’s Web site) “offers mobile shoppers a seamless brand experience with store locations integrated inside native apps.” It promises to close the loop between mobile advertising and local retail sales by sending customers highly personalized and localized marketing emails designed to impact real-time buying decisions. Dónde’s goal is to help retailers and brands increase their mobile engagement with customers by 4x. The company also runs geo-targeted mobile ad campaigns with offers specific for the customers’ closest stores.

In short, Tchong emphasized that the number one marketing objective for retailers is to improve the buyer experience. “The tools for doing that is through social media,” he added. “It’s become part of our lives.” Below, he outlines what he calls the most important “ubertrends” today.

Digital Lifestyle

“Our digital lifestyle is so dominant; people can’t live without technology,” Tchong said, referencing a university study that was jointly conducted in 10 countries (including the U.S. and the U.K.) that asked student volunteers between the ages of 17 and 23 to go without their cell phones, tablets, laptops, and TV for 24 hours. During the prescribed time, they agreed not to access email, texts, Facebook, and Twitter. According to researchers, nearly 80 percent of the participants described symptoms similar to smokers attempting to give up their habit and crack addicts experiencing withdrawal.

“It’s not man versus machine, but man becomes machine,” Tchong noted. “Even our terminology reflects this change; when we’re tired, we say we ‘crash’ (like a computer). With the Internet of Things, everything is connected to our digital lifestyle,” he explained, pointing out advances in wearable technology such as fitness trackers and iPods. 

TaskRabbit – which describes itself as “a peer-to-peer marketplace that connects neighbors to get things done through the melding of social, location-based, and mobile technologies” – is a good example, according to Tchong, of a business borne out of this digital lifestyle. Offered in 19 major cities in the U.S., it allows ordinary consumers to outsource errands/tasks that they don’t want (or have time) to do themselves. They post a task on the TaskRabbit Web site and select a provider from a list of interested “taskers” who respond with an hourly charge for performing the chore.

“Another Web-based business is Airbnb, which is revolutionizing the hospitality industry,” Tchong noted, by allowing ordinary homeowners to lease out rooms in their home. Airbnb now has 800,000+ listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries.

Time Compression

“It’s the acceleration of life,” Tchong quipped, adding, “We don’t have much time anymore. Even babies are sleeping less than doctors recommend, and kids are growing older younger.” The notion of kids maturing at a faster rate was the basis for research done by the Advertising Educational Foundation on the preschool toy market that discovered today’s children ages 3 to 5 are behaving like kids ages 5 and up did 10 years ago in regard to brand recognition and the ability to influence purchasing decisions.

“Remember when taking a cruise meant relaxing? Not anymore! Now there are caffeinated cruises with Starbucks on them,” Tchong noted. Even music has gotten faster, he commented, explaining how society has moved from the 3-beat rhythm of the waltz to 170 beats per minute of music today.

From the advent of Polaroid cameras and fast food restaurants to the invention of the microwave, people want instant gratification. In his book Social Engagement Marketing, Tchong referenced a study by Jupiter Research that noted 75 percent of 1,058 consumers surveyed would not return to a Web site that took more than four seconds to load. “Keep your Web sites simple,” he told the audience.

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