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Should retailers embrace the stockless store?

Chris Field
Chris Field

Maybe we should give up on the idea of stores as places to buy things to take home. What’s the best shopping day you ever had? I bet it wasn’t the one that ended with you carrying lots of bags onto the train. It was the one where you smelt, tasted and saw things you’d never seen before, in stores that you had never previously visited.

This is what the industry means by retail theatre, but it scares the hell out of most retailers. They still need a money shot; in the department store, the point of having your makeup done is to then buy something to take away. What the hell is this giant hall of smoke and mirrors for, if not to carry stock?

Here lies the conflicted nature of retail’s future. Retailers know the experience is as important as the purchase, but each company has to work out their own balance between experience and transaction. And right now that balance is far from clear.

Part of the experiment to find the right answer must contemplate the stockless store. Pure experience with nothing to take away but an afterglow and an email that says your purchase will be delivered to the destination of your choice within 24 hours. As consumers, we are already doing this online – is it really too much of a leap to see this becoming the norm in stores?

Some retailers are already down this route, investing heavily in the store experience to bridge the gap between bricks & mortar and online. The most extreme examples of this are Samsung’s 837 store, which is purely a showroom and inspiration centre for the tech giant, and who can forget the Amazon Go pilot store that launched late last year.

The goal is what is known as endless aisle, where store stock stretches all the way to the warehouse through digital, but retailers need to think carefully about the shelf-edge experience that accompanies it. The experience-only store depends principally on great digital technology and on outstanding staff. Both exist in abundance, but the two are not currently working together. It’s not a technology problem, it’s a people problem, and that comes down to how staff are recruited, trained, managed and rewarded.

Operations, HR and marketing have not yet begun to work together dynamically to solve this problem, and currently have different expectations and motivations. They need to collaborate around the shared problem of how store managers and staff will deliver the experience that consumers crave, as well as manage the logistics of getting goods delivered – or at least continuing the conversation, so that even if customers leave without buying they have started the journey.

It is these three challenges – experience, delivery and relationship building – that retailers need to focus on, and tech companies need to help them come up with the solution. If we’re going to contemplate the stockless store, things need to change.

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