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Sunday Soundbite

Retail needs human beings more than ever

Chris Field
Chris Field

The press does not like the middle ground between any debate. It has to carry its share of the blame for the Brexit fiasco which will now see Britain crash out of the EU – the worst of all possible scenarios – because it failed to count the true consequences. Obviously, it didn’t help that leavers lied and cheated their way to win the referendum, but my point still applies.

And so it is with robotics. The media has been the first to paint the dystopian view that human jobs will continue to be made redundant by automation. Firstly, there is yet no evidence that this is the case; the recent round of job losses in retail is not to do with automation, it is to do with the changing role of the store.

What’s automation got to do with it?

Automation can and will continue to play an important role in retail, but there is a danger that some retailers have already gone too far in the wrong direction.

The fact is, retail needs human beings more than ever, even if their roles change and even if they have no face-to-face contact with the customer. Take this example. Bloom & Wild, the cool florists of the moment, failed – on written promise – to deliver flowers on February 13th. It then said it would deliver on the 14th, OK, I can live with that, it’s still Valentine’s Day but the delivery company’s tracking app says delivery by Friday. Oh dear.

I received several emails from a succession of call centre people all telling me what was happening, none of which did happen. But the problem was, no one person was prepared to own the problem. Result? An unnamed supervisor agreed to refund me. She didn’t. So, the end result was, the original and the replacement flowers did arrive but at an address that I had meanwhile left. No one fixed it, no one owned it and they think the case is closed because they think they refunded me!

All you need is a little human interaction

What would you do? As you can see, I am sharing the experience. And all Bloom & Wild had to do was get one human being to own the problem and talk to me. The point is, there is clearly a process in place at Bloom & Wild, with several of the steps fully automated, but the result for them has been an unhappy customer who will happily tell everyone he is unhappy. And it was my first order with them.

Consumers want the human touch and indeed will demand it. My worry is that many retailers are so busy removing human personality from their interactions that they will soon be unable to reintroduce it, online and perhaps even in the store. Empowering staff is about letting them be themselves, and most human beings naturally want to help. Some don’t in, which case they should not be working in retail, either in store or online.

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