Innovation in retail

A little later this week I’m going to be speaking to kick off a hackathon event taking place at the retail institution that is Marks and Spencer. Here’s the gist of what I’m going to say (spoiler alert – if you are attending the event, this really is pretty much is what I’ll be saying on the day!).

I’ve been playing around with the concept of “intimate technology” in the past few weeks. Not that sort of intimate technology – more the idea that the relationship we have with devices these days is becoming increasingly intimate, increasingly personal.

Over the past three months we’ve been having some renovation work done on our house. It’s been a fairly stressful time – the usual kind of thing, I guess, where one’s living arrangements are turned upside down and then liberally covered in plaster dust. The end is in sight, now, and one of the things that I have had to do recently is choose a new programmer unit for our central heating system. The experience has given me a new benchmark for the antithesis of intimate, personal technology; whilst programmer units these days may well be “digital”, they still represent a form of user experience design that determines that the human is only a small component of the overall system that needs to submit data into a process.

If the central heating programmer represents one end of a technology “intimacy continuum”, then the average smartphone these days represents the other. These are devices that many of us cling to, waking us up in the morning, and there by our sides when we fall asleep at the end of the day. I think that there are many reasons why:

There is something about the tactility of the objects, their strokeability, which means that we have an often anthropomorphic relationship with their sleek, glass, plastic and metal lines. The devices themselves often have an aesthetic beauty that is a long way from the beige PC boxes of yesteryear. The devices themselves, and the applications that sit upon them, are much more people-centric in their design that what has come before, and there are frequent uses of techniques like positive reinforcement that make them a pleasure to use.

That’s not an extensive list – more off the top of my head – but I don’t think many people would argue that it’s none of the above and instead because of the quad-core processors or gigabytes of memory. The power of the technology is what allows much of the more human-centred things to happen.

So keep that “intimacy continuum” in mind. Nasty heating control system at one end, social-app enabled, strokeable smart phone at the other.

My career, nearly twenty years of it to date, has been spent in various organisations, often looking at where the issues of technology, people, media and process collide. Inherent in that has been a common question: how do we get people to change their behaviours? I’m not one who believes that technology in of itself makes a great difference – it’s what people do with it that is important. Consciously structuring events and systems in a way that helps shepherd the right behaviours is something that can be done, but often the tech comes first.

There are a couple of psychological concepts that I think are often evident (whether consciously designed or not) in much of the intimate technology that we now use. Knowing about them might help to design technology that will have an impact in the retail field.

The first of those is positive reinforcement. In the 1960s American behaviourist BF Skinner experimented upon rats and pigeons to determine that if you positively reward behaviours that you want to see, then you will probably see more of them (and that this has a greater impact that negatively punishing behaviours that you don’t want to see).

Imagine if you wanted to get a pigeon to travel from point A to point B. A negative reinforcement model might create a wire cage, linking the two points together. Putting electric current through the cage, which would administer a shock to the pigeon should it go in the wrong direction, might achieve the objective but would more likely just result in a somewhat confused bird. Laying a trail of grain between the two points would be a positive reinforcement model, and is likely to have a much more impactful effect.

There is a great example of positive reinforcement in the reception area of the Microsoft building in Reading. Alongside the showcase of stylish PCs and phones, and a mocked up living room complete with Xbox Kinect, there is a Perspex box, with three diagonal sheets attach inside. The box is to collect lanyards from visitors as they leave the building. Dropping a visitor pass into the slot at the top results in the lanyard sliding down like a snake before dropping into a bit at the bottom – it’s a small thing, but very pleasing to watch, and I’ve seen people queuing up to give back their passes. Similar tricks are often used with charity collection boxes where coins traverse a maze or spin giddily around a cone before disappearing.

These small, playful things are great examples of how positive reinforcement can be used to reward behaviours that are wanted to be seen.

The second concept is the one of reciprocation – the principal of give and take. Professor Dennis Regan of Cornell University ran some experiments that illustrate the concept well.

The experiment ostensibly was an assessment of art appreciation. Two people were put into a room and shown some pictures. However, one of the participants was a stooge, and at the end of the “experiment” offered to sell the actual subject some raffle tickets. For half of the sample, that was it. For the other half, midway through the art, the stooge left the room and then returned with two bottles of Coke, one of which he gave to the subject.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the subjects who had been given the soft drink were more likely to buy raffle tickets. More interestingly, Regan re-ran the experiment and got the subjects to rate how much they liked the stooge. For the group that didn’t receive the gift, the amount the person liked the other correlated with how likely they were to buy the raffle tickets. However, for the cola-receiving groups, how much they liked the other person made no difference to whether they bought tickets or not. Giving a gift somehow bonded them into a relationship where they felt the need to give something back.

Reciprocation is used very often as a sales technique. Think about how deli counters in supermarkets, or stalls in farmers’ markets, will often have little samples of their produce available to taste. It might not be planned that way, but those little morsels bind many folk into buying the product.

So – let’s take stock. We have a spectrum of intimate technology spanning from the nasty central heating system through to the wonders of the app-powered smartphone. We have the idea of positively rewarding behaviours that we want to see, and we have the idea of gifting to help encourage people to buy things.

What today, then, is the most visible manifestation of technology in the retail environment? The self-checkout.

Is it intimate? Well, most of them appear to be treating the customer as merely an element of a purchasing process: in WH Smith, the former process has been followed so slavishly that the machines even try to get you to upsell an unwanted bar of chocolate at the end of your scanning.

Do they positively reinforce the wanted behaviours? I have six words for you: unexpected item in the bagging area.

Do they give you a gift? Well, quite frankly, no. They take away the privilege of having someone do the scanning for you (and as an added bonus have the “checkout monitor” prowling around often like a prison warder looking for infringements of the rules).

From a retailer’s short-term perspective, they make sense. They reduce down the cost of transaction and those tricky staff things that too often make mistakes and steal from the till.

But retail environments are changing – a shop now just designed to sell goods is a missed opportunity because the internet gives many of us a much more preferable environment in which to spend our money. Shopping is needing to become more than just a financial transaction to make sense of the cost and complexity of physical space, stock, fixtures and fittings and employees.

So what might intimate technology, positively reinforcing technology, playful, gifting technology look like? Here are a few examples.

First of all from the sports brand Puma. Established when the Dassler brothers fell out and split their company in 1948 (the other half became Adidas), the brand have been building retail stores in the past few years (and, much more importantly, are now are the official kit manufacturer for my beloved Watford FC). Those retail stores are there to sell product, but realistically most Puma products are sold through other retailers. The stores give Puma the opportunity to build their brand with consumers, and demonstrate a sense of fun that is maybe lacking in their long-time family rivals.

I visited the store in the West London Westfield shopping centre a few weeks ago, and was captivated by a very simple, yet very impactful piece of technology in the changing rooms; the Puma Peepshow.

In conventional technology design terms, it’s meaningless. But in terms of intimacy (interacting when you’re half clothed, no less), in terms of positive reinforcement (come back and try more clothes on!) and in terms of reciprocation (a little bit of fun in our lives is a valuable gift) it hits home in many ways. Whilst it isn’t something directly that would work for every demographic in retail, I think it illustrates how technology can act to change behaviours.

Another example comes from work done in South Korea by Tesco, who have looked at how they can take the retail experience outside of the shop. A virtualised set of supermarket shelves allowing commuters to spend their time waiting for a train shopping for goods to be delivered to their home. The gift here for me seems to be allowing people to be able to use otherwise dead time in a way that helps them to manage their lives more effectively, although I can see that some might see this as somewhat intrusive.

The final example is from the Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo. They have developed an App – Wake Up – that is an alarm clock, a weather forecast, and allows links into social networks, all designed in the aesthetic of the brand, and with “composed” alarm tones that change given the weather for the day. It scores highly on the gifting front, and you don’t get much more intimate than being the first thing that a person sees and hears of a morning.

So how might one go about coming up with some ideas for innovating in a retail environment given all of the above? Well, a blank piece of paper is a scary proposition – but it’s important to remember that innovation is usually about piecing together existing ideas in new combinations to make something different. The cinema plus radio gave us television; the horse and carriage, minus the horse, plus the internal combustion engine, gave us the motor car (or horseless carriage as it was once known). This is true too in the world of the arts – for example Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, mixed with jazz, dance and the genius of Leonard Bernstein begat West Side Story.

So, to innovate (and to pull all these strands together), ask:

Who are our customers?

What is it we want them to do?

How can we positively reinforce that behaviour?

What can we give to them?

And what things can we combine in new ways to allow all of that to happen?

Not necessarily easy – but hopefully a good start to help produce some fabulously innovative ideas.


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