Terminal disarray

Why are retailers sceptical of the benefits interactive services have to offer? Michael Evamy investigates

SBHD: Why are retailers sceptical of the benefits interactive services have to offer? Michael Evamy investigates

Retailers form a curious, cautious herd, and in no part of their business are they being more watchful than in their treatment of opportunities to develop on-screen, in-shop, interactive services for their customers. If we entertain for a moment (just a moment, I promise) the information superhighway concept, and spy through the police patrol cameras suspended overhead, there’s a long, slow-moving tailback on the hard shoulder: retailers, all with one eye on gaps in the traffic and the other on the cars in front.

On the face of it, techno-anxiety appears to be raging in the retail industry. Many chains have invested heavily in sophisticated electronic networks that aid stock control and distribution. But it is still a novelty to walk into a shop and find a computer terminal which offers consumers any kind of improved service.

The truth is that the quality of most so-called interactive in-store systems to date has been so unconvincing – to retailers and consumers – that the argument over their commercial benefits has yet to be made with any conviction. It might be if more designers were involved.

Back when information and superhighway were just two words on opposite sides of Al Gore’s brain, it was anticipated that terminals offering information and ordering facilities would be placed in stores by, for example, major clothes and furniture retailers, as a prelude to making catalogues and services available to homes down fibre optic phone lines or cable, when such networks were in place. The assumption was that the practical issues of how customers navigated shopping systems would need to be resolved in advance of piping television- or PC-based services into the home. This is still the predicted scenario, but at a revised, far slower speed.

Too many half-hearted pilot schemes have led to a paucity of useful information for the further development of systems. The tendency is for pilots to be run for a few months, without updating in line with stock changes.

Peter Matthews of Nucleus Multimedia absolves the retailers of techno-apathy. “It’s not inertia, it’s just that no-one has come up with anything practical. Most of the programs have been developed by software companies; they’re not graphic designers, nor are they marketers.

“You can press a button and things happen, but often they don’t happen fast enough in real time and they don’t satisfy any of the practical objectives that a client may have. You have to be able to plan a complete service.”

It takes multi-skilled teams – designers, writers, marketers, programmers – to assemble retail-ready systems, says Matthews. An understanding of how to integrate multimedia systems into existing IT networks is crucial.

Matthews’ company has signed a deal with a “very well-known major retailer” which, in March, will begin rolling out an interactive wine guide developed by Nucleus with ICL and software specialist Julia Schofield. The client is a supermarket chain with “hundreds” of branches.

The guide allows card payment on the spot, and offers information on wines and the opportunity for home delivery, thereby allowing the retailer to list products it needn’t hold in-store. By widening the choice for the customer and encouraging bulk purchases, it offers the client two clear benefits, and makes a stronger than ever argument for well-developed in-store customer interface systems.

“Having an information-based kiosk in a store is of very limited interest to retailers,” says Matthews. “It’s no better than having an educated salesman. Retailers want to increase margins and volumes, take money off customers there and then, and increase impulse purchases. Just pure information is fine, but you can do that in print much more easily. An encyclopedia of wine would be dead in the water. It would cost ú1m across 100 stores. Anyone who thinks like that doesn’t understand retailing very well.”

Something of a Catch 22 is developing: there is scant experience in setting up and evaluating interactive retailing projects, and numerous technology-based, non-user-oriented companies are supplying systems that are simply scans of catalogues. And when clients get disappointed, their reservations about new technology are reinforced. The briefing process needs to mature, and fast.

“It does require a lot of dialogue at the moment,” says Stephen Hall, chief executive of IN.form, a design consultancy producing interfaces for public access multimedia systems. “That’s the only way we can do it. One of the biggest potential areas for misunderstanding is cost. We can do something for a client for úX000, but it’s difficult for us to quantify what they will get for that. They want to know, `Do I get 100 screens or 10 minutes or what?’ Well, you can make an interaction last as long as you like. And does 100 screens mean each one has to be different? 100 screens with completely different backgrounds and completely different information content would be expensive.”

Retailers need to become knowledgeable about the design of interactive systems before the rush begins to pipe shopping services into homes. But if results from in-store pilot schemes are to have any meaning in that process, they need to be given a chance by being explained properly to the public.

The touch-screen payment terminal currently standing in selected Argos stores is a good example of a system poorly integrated into the rest of the shop. Intended to reduce queues at the till, it includes three or four simple steps in which customers input the catalogue number and quantity of each item they want, swipe their card and receive a receipt. They pick up their goodies from the collection desk.

However, I spent 45 minutes on a busy afternoon in the New Oxford Street branch in London waiting for someone to use the machine. Despite being implored by the machine’s female “voice”, customers wandered past, barely curious, and joined the queues at the two tills; the only hands that touched the screen were those of disobedient children. Despite not recognising the catalogue number of the Tomy toy robot I wanted to buy, and spewing out a receipt as long as my arm for the Thunderbird 2 playset I bought instead, it was straightforward to use.

The trouble was, Argos had not signposted it well and there was no introduction to it on display boards, which would have made customers feel more confident about using it. If these systems are to succeed, the interface outside the computer, in the store, has to be as carefully considered as the interface inside.

It will take time for clients and their suppliers to learn how to reach the optimum balance between the interactive sophistication of a system and its cost. There is common agreement that systems have to be rewarding for customers or they won’t use them. But the more powerful the hardware the higher the outlay.

“It’s fine to get a demo working on a highly specified PC with two gigabytes of memory and twin CD-ROM drives, but if you tried to roll that out across 100 stores the hardware costs would be horrendous. You have to plan the presentation so the amount of data storage you need isn’t ridiculous. It has to satisfy the objectives using as few images, as few screens as possible,” says Matthews.

“Everyone’s caught up in the hardware and software, but what’s important is the quality and appropriateness of the communication.”

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