The one-size-fits-all approach is very hard to resist. It sings of convenience and a hassle-free shopping effort. But in retail, its more often just a myth.
I learned that the hard way when we were buying clothes for my daughter, when she was quite young. It seemed odd how very young girls were wearing two-piece bathing suits until someone explained it was one of the few garments for that age that truly was one-size-fits-all. (To a point.)
The one-size-fits-all strategy also fails when used by retailers to police retailers. The PCI credit card security standard is fighting to overcome retail resistance, and a surprisingly high percentage of its problems result from a one-size-fits-all mentality. Any group that can include Wal-Mart, Home Depot, 7-Eleven and Bills Hardware Store (down the street from me. Really nice guy) and tries to impose a single set of security rules on all of them is asking for consistency troubles.
The same problem exists today for Web analytics. Recent changes by Nielsen/NetRatings and ComScore are shifting the focus away from "number of page views" to "how much time the visitor spent on the site." Given techniques today that allow multiple pages to be shown without a click, the idea is not a bad one. But lumping all Web sites into one category and making the change for them all is a really bad idea.
For almost all information-intensive and entertainment sites, a visitor that stays a long time is probably a very happy visitor. But what about a research site? A lengthy stay might mean that the visitor is having a hard time finding the answer they are seeking.
For an e-commerce site, that long visit might mean a lot of unhappiness. Heck, it might even mean a terrible and convoluted layout and design, plus very slow page response times. Long visits can mean very different things depending on the nature of the site.
Another good example of the flaw of the one-size-fits-all rationale comes from a new report about the self-service/self-checkout space.
North American shoppers are on track to spend more than $525 billion at self-checkout lanes, ticketing kiosks and other self-service machines in 2007, an increase from $438 billion in 2006, according to a new study from the IHL Consulting Group. The firm predicts that self-service revenue will increase another 18 percent next year, eventually topping $1.3 trillion by 2011.
But IHL President Greg Buzek took the results one step further, saying that consumers not only use the systems, but actually want them. "Consumers enjoy self-service and increasingly seek out retailers that offer the technology," Buzek said.
Not necessarily. In hardware environments—consider Home Depot—the accuracy and speed are not discouraging factors and the customers tend to embrace them. But in a grocery environment, I must respectfully disagree with Buzek. In talking with an awful lot of grocery consumers, self-checkout lanes are generally avoided and are the checkout option of last resort. They may use it, and that use will undoubtedly increase, but suggesting that grocery consumers are happy about it seems quite a stretch.
Buzek himself concedes that his survey didnt differentiate the kind of retailer being considered in the question, so the answers cant be segmented that way. By mixing them together prevents any analysis of how self-checkout is likely to be received for any particular retailer.
Is self-checkout dramatically more efficient for the retailer? Absolutely. Does it necessarily represent a downgrade in customer service? Thats a trickier question.
I think its without dispute that the way self-checkout is executed by many chains, especially grocers, is absolutely a reduction in customer service, in the same way that self-service in gas stations represented a major customer service reduction for those retailers.
I happen to be based in a state (New Jersey – please, no jokes) that forbids "pump your own gas" efforts. The net effect has been that gas station attendants pump gas but have done away with what used to be typical services. I cant remember the last time I bought gas and was asked if I wanted to have my oil checked, let alone see my windshields (front and back) cleaned without anyone being asked. (Uh-oh. Im starting to sound like Andy Rooney. I better get back to geek talk.)
So, yes, the way its typically executed, self-checkout often does lead to reduced customer service. But it certainly doesnt have to mean that. Information kiosks, strategically placed and intelligently programmed, can indeed make customers feel valued and can sometimes help them make purchase decisions in a way that typical store associates couldnt.
Like everyone else in retail tech, it comes down to the thought, creativity and effort that goes into the technology — as opposed to the technology itself—that will determine whether your customers embrace it, are repelled by it or choose to live with it.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.
To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.