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#RICE24: On the Ground with In-Store Tech at Sephora, Reformation and Walgreens

Cooler doors with screens at a Walgreens.
Cooler doors with screens at a Walgreens. (Photo credit: Retail TouchPoints)

There is no better way to find out what’s going on at retail than to actually visit stores, which is exactly what Retail TouchPoints had the chance to do while in Chicago this week for the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo (RICE).

RTP’s editors joined the #RICE24 store tours hosted by intrepid travelers and retail analysts Jack Stratten of Insider Trends and retail consultant Ian Scott. The tours centered on Stratten’s philosophy about finding the right balance between fast and slow retail experiences.

“[This concept] transcends ecom and physical stores; it’s more fundamental,” Stratten shared in an introductory video for tour participants. “So much of retail is about how you speed up different parts of a shopping journey [examples include self-checkout, ecommerce, click-and-collect] to make it simple, convenient and fast for the customer. But as things have sped up, there’s been this massive opportunity to actually slow things down as well. While customers love and often demand fast experiences, they love and demand slow experiences too, and increasingly as I go around the world I really see successful retail as being one of these two things and sometimes both.

“Brands that fail, that struggle, online or offline, tend to be because they’re somewhere in the middle, they’re neither fast nor slow,” Stratten added. “They’re not engaging customers emotionally and in a meaningful way — the slow part — but they’re also not speeding up and making things more convenient and simple.

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Here’s RTP’s take on the best fast and slow experiences we saw on our tour of Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile shopping district.

Best ‘Fast’ Experience: CVS Vending Machine

The CVS vending machine in the Marriott Marquis lobby.
The CVS vending machine in the Marriott Marquis lobby. (Photo credit: Retail TouchPoints)

The CVS vending machine in the Marriott Marquis lobby wasn’t actually part of the official store tour, but it was notable enough that it received a mention on at least three separate panels during the RICE conference.

It’s easy to understand why: The oversized vending machine offers a surprisingly robust collection of just about everything you may have forgotten but need while traveling — swim diapers, cold medicine, feminine supplies, condoms, snacks and even a handheld gaming console.

It’s a brilliant example of a fast, convenient experience placed right where you need it.

Best ‘Slow’ Experience: Sephora SkincareIQ

Another brilliant experience we encountered was Sephora’s free SkincareIQ service, but unlike the CVS vending machine, this one slows down shoppers — in a good way.

A brave RICE attendee gets his face scanned at Sephora for the company's SkincareIQ experience.
A brave RICE attendee gets his face scanned at Sephora for the company’s SkincareIQ experience. (Photo credit: Retail TouchPoints)

Sephora is a regular bazaar of the best that beauty has to offer, but I’ve always found the vast selection overwhelming (and I was gratified to hear from a Sephora associate that I’m far from alone, with that being a comment he said he hears regularly.)

SkincareIQ tackles that problem head-on with an associate-led experience. Associates use a handheld device to take two quick scans of a customer’s skin and ask a few brief questions. In just seconds, the associate is armed with a comprehensive overview of the client’s skin profile, as well as a full slate of recommended products, from cosmetics in the right tone to skincare solutions.

Not only does the experience offer customers an easier entry point into Sephora’s vast assortment; it also gives associates an incredibly effective engagement and conversion tool. Not to mention that Sephora then has ample opportunity to maintain the relationship and encourage return visits.

“What I love about this is that the staff isn’t hiding behind the tech,” said Scott in a conversation with Retail TouchPoints. “The tech is enabling the associates. It’s a wonderful merging of tech and theater, with major upselling potential.”

Associates can filter through the various recommended products based on type, price point, brand and other features to zero in on exactly what the customer needs, then find the products and check the customer out anywhere in the store on that same mobile device. Customers then receive an email with all the products recommended for their specific skin, with those same recommendations also integrated into the customer-facing Sephora app.

The whole thing is so seamlessly integrated, not just into the store experience but across all of the brand’s channels, that it not only creates a great shopping experience in the moment but also provides ample opportunity for future selling.

A Middle of the Road Experience: Reformation’s Fitting Room Assistant

The vibe of Reformation’s Magnificent Mile store is light and breezy, as are the brand’s clothes. Part of this laid-back feel is enabled by the fact that only one size and model of each product is on display. When customers are ready to try something on, rather than grabbing what they want off the rack, they head to one of several touchscreens throughout the store and “create” their fitting room selection by choosing all the products they want to try in the appropriate sizes and colorways.

Fitting room tech at Reformation.
A Reformation associate demonstrates the store’s fitting room tech. (Photo credit: Retail TouchPoints)

The tech has a sleek, high-end vibe, but that’s doesn’t offset the pure inconvenience of it. It adds a disconcerting dissonance to the store experience, since a customer must return to the screen to indicate what they want to try on whenever they find something they like. Customers do have the option to run through this process with an associate on a tablet instead of using the wall screens, which likely makes it much more enjoyable, especially because the associate then has the opportunity to offer advice and suggestions.

Once a customer indicates they’re ready to try everything on, they select that option on the screen and their clothes will be brought to a dressing room. Another nice feature of the solution is that a smaller screen in each dressing room allows customers to easily indicate if they need a different size or want to try on any additional items.

All in all, however, the offering felt more obstructive to the brand experience than additive. “They’re providing solutions for one type of customer journey, but not all of them,” said Scott, pointing out that while a subset of customers might like this functionality, there will always be others who simply want to grab something off the rack and try it on.

He likened it to Glossier’s very similar ordering model: in-store customers order what they want with the help of a tablet-wielding associate, then wait for their products to arrive at a designated hatch in the store. “It’s a fun experience the first time, but what about the next time when you just want to get a new lip gloss?” Scott asked. “These experiences only serve one type of customer journey instead of considering the full spectrum of customer preferences.”

And One Bad ‘Slow’ Experience: Walgreens Cooler Screens

It will likely come as no surprise that the reaction to the screen-based cooler doors at Walgreens was unanimously negative. After all, the doors have been trashed by customers from almost the moment they were introduced, and Walgreens is now embroiled in a legal battle with the tech provider as it attempts to extricate itself from the deal and remove the screens from its stores.

But sometimes you learn more from failures than successes, so let’s assess exactly why this particular experience is so bad.

Comparison of outside and inside Walgreens coolers.
Comparison of outside and inside Walgreens coolers. (Photo credit: Retail TouchPoints)

First off, it complicates an experience that used to be simple. Now instead of looking into the case and opening the door to grab what you want, a shopper is presented with an opaque screen showing images of the products. The problem is that what’s on the screen often doesn’t align with what’s actually behind the door, and as one tour attendee noted, sometimes even the prices displayed on the screen don’t align with the prices on the shelf. As Stratten said, “You know what would work better here? Transparent glass.” In short, the tech slows customers down in a bad way.

The core problem is this — this “innovation” was put in place with the retailer in mind, not the customer. The ultimate goal of these screens is to display advertising as an expansion of Walgreens’ retail media offering. Selling advertising is a financial boon for retailers, but in this case, Walgreens didn’t seem to have actually sold any advertising. In fact, the only ad on the screens was a Walgreens ad touting the screens themselves, with the tagline: “The best parts of shopping online but in person.” (Oh, the irony.)

“This was a prime example of unnecessary technology,” said Scott. “Everyone’s so excited about retail media because they can make money, but no one’s talking about putting the right content on these screens and putting them in the right place.” So let this be a lesson to all retailers looking to expand their media offerings into stores: when done right, customers and brands will likely welcome relevant advertising in stores, but it absolutely has to be implemented with the customer experience in mind.

Good technology facilitates the process, it doesn’t obstruct it,” said Scott.

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