The spirit of Christmas future: technology, human interaction, or both?

The spirit of Christmas future: technology, human interaction, or both?

Christmas is the season of many things. It should all be about goodwill and joy of course. But it’s also often a time of increased stress for almost everyone. In our fast-paced world, with customers pressed for time, and hit by the cost-of-living crisis, this year’s celebrations feel more stressful than usual.

Retailers of course can take steps to reduce customer stress, through improving customer service and experience. This year, however, more than any in recent memory, how to create that better experience has become a more complex question. The role of technology, particularly AI and automation, has started to move beyond the chatbot online, and the self-scanning till in-store. As we all know, the focus on AI and automation is causing huge questions in the wider world. In retail, it’s creating the potential to skew service away from people. Of course, technology can be an enormous support across the pressured frontline of customer engagement: but we need more than machines. We need, particularly at this most sensitive and potentially fraught time of the year, a blend of the best that technology and people can collaborate to deliver.

The growing trend towards AI and automated processes does not mean that retailers should use technology to answer every service need. The retail picture is more complex than this, with continual push and pull towards and away from greater automation or simplification. The post-pandemic swing towards ecommerce, for example, has now partly swung back. Many brands now deliver ‘omnichannel’ experiences, where ecommerce thrives, but the ‘bricks and mortar’ store is still the heart of customer engagement. Now, around 70% of people still shop in physical stores - more than in pre-pandemic times.

In an omnichannel engagement, the key is the ability to deliver different kinds of personalised engagement at different moments in the customer journey. High automation and proactive, AI-enabled chat and suggestions make online experiences fast and easy, as they need to be. But in the store, still the foundation of the retail experience, no matter how digital our tools and processes get, engagement must be ‘human’. By which I mean, simply, about people talking to people.

At our core, humans are social beings

We value social interactions and like to make a connection with those around us. We want to feel valued, and our emotional response to any experience plays an important factor in our decision-making process. Retailers therefore need to ensure that their use of AI is intelligently crafted so that frontline employees are not replaced by automation, but that the retailer’s greatest assets – their frontline service teams – are able to shine!

We are now seeing a growing trend within Retail to move away from the efficiency of automation and instead focus on what is right for their customers. In response to customer feedback, Booths have recently announced the removal of self-scan tills in most of their stores, and Dutch supermarket, Jumbo, has introduced a ‘chatter checkout’ and a ‘coffee corner’ for those shoppers who want to interact with the cashier. This might be a flash in the pan, but if it is, it’s a pretty big one. Global retail brands that focus heavily on efficiency, such as Walmart and Costco, are also considering removing self-scan checkouts in their stores.

Every shopping experience is different for each customer. It may be a key social moment in an otherwise isolated day, or a challenging environment that creates heightened levels of anxiety where additional support is needed. The choice and balance are what matter. Doing the right thing, in the right moment, for each customer. Shoppers - however they’re interacting with your brand - don’t think of themselves as ‘selecting a channel’. They go with the choice that reflects their needs for efficiency and speed, or for a physical visit whether for a social interaction, the ability to make choices in the moment, or to directly see and compare products, and literally hold them in their hand.

However much we technologise the shopping experience, I don’t think we will ever remove the need for people to have the direct, human experience of face-to-face discussion, and of the ability to change and be proactive, in the moment, to respond to customer needs. This may not meet bottom line targets, but it is the secret to real customer engagement. Beyond this, direct engagement is key not only to happier customers who feel valued, but also to more fulfilled employees who in turn are more effective, experienced, and empathetic for customers. Which of course, creates greater retention and efficiency for the brand.

And at this time of year, what could be more important than happiness on all sides?

ABa is one of the UK’s leading providers of bespoke CX measurement programmes. To find out more about how we can help any organisation develop and improve their customer’s experience, contact Danielle Sones, Managing Director ( / 0161 431 1221).