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Why Retailers Struggle to Give ‘Sci-Fi Shoppers’ What They Want: Simplicity

What the so-called Sci-Fi Shopper wants in a retail experience is far more down to earth than out there in a galaxy far, far away.

Elastic Path surveyed more than 1,000 consumers, in addition to 300 marketers, to understand consumer expectations of retail companies and in the process came up with the moniker “Sci-Fi Shopper” to describe someone primed by the likes of Amazon to expect frictionless ease at every touchpoint and interaction. Elastic Path is a microservices provider that helps brands and retailers enable commerce anywhere.

According to CMO Darin Archer, what was most surprising as a tech-fueled “Jetson-like era” approaches is that the Sci-Fi Shopper is less interested in complicated far-out technologies and would rather that retailers “fix the basics” that make a meaningful difference in their paths to purchase. “The discrepancy between what companies are investing in versus what shoppers want is really interesting,” Archer explained.

A good number of brands aren’t investing in customer-centric technology like they’d want to largely because “they’re so constrained by a lot of the legacy technologies and platforms” that underpin their business, like ERP, CRM and inventory management.

But merchants are hamstrung by numerous forces, some beyond their control. Certain motivations are driving some retailers to close the gap between consumer expectations and what they’re actually providing. Though 67 percent of consumers want self checkout, for example, just 18 percent of merchants offer this capability or are planning to for any of several reasons ranging from rising minimum wage requirements to a shrinking labor pool and other external factors.

“They look at solving the problem and it becomes such a long chain of people that need to participate in the solution that it often overwhelms many of these retailers and brands,” Archer explained.

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In many cases, apparel sellers discover that offering the kinds of experiences the Sci-Fi Shopper expects actually begins upstream. “Suppliers really do need to begin reimagining their role in the shopping experience,” said Archer.

Consider one apparel retailer’s thought experiment around self checkout. That would mean getting the loss prevention team involved to safeguard against a potential rise in shrink, Archer explained, and to figure out a workaround for the EAS tags that store associates typically detach when customers are paying at the register. The bigger problem is that sans real-time inventory visibility, the retailer wasn’t even 100 percent sure of the exact inventory it had in store at any given moment, he added. The Amazons of the world might be tinkering with camera-driven frictionless checkout but the “economics just don’t work,” Archer noted, though something like passive RFID could offer similar benefits and outcomes.

Archer said denim and apparel brand managers lamented that their suppliers would have to be the ones inserting tags onto each garment because doing it themselves would be “too expensive.” That’s when they realize that “‘if we want to start solving somebody’s problem with a Sci-Fi-type capability, we’re probably going to have to change our systems,’” he said.

The Sci-Fi Shopper’s interest in voice commerce dwarfs brand offerings in the voice tech arena. A majority of consumers (57 percent) would like to interact with retailers using voice commands while less than half that amount (23 percent) are investing in this area, according to the report. And though it’s often said no one wants to buy clothing via voice, sight unseen, 43 percent claimed they’d want to purchase apparel this way. Though fashion lagged groceries (69 percent), beauty and personal care products (67 percent) and the books, movies and music category (59 percent), it’s an encouraging sign that shoppers are open to experimenting with new ways of filling their wardrobes.

But don’t get too excited quite yet. More than one third cited “too many errors” or “miscommunication while purchasing” as reasons why they’re hesitant to buy by voice via Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

As retailers struggle to offer the convenience and simplicity their Sci-Fi Shopper craves, Archer thinks third-party partnerships with companies like delivery specialists Shipsi and DoorDash—which has expanded from a focus on restaurant delivery into retail as well—could address consumer expectations. And technologies that seemingly have cooled off could become red hot once again.

“I think RFID is going to come back with a vengeance and become a really big deal,” Archer predicted.