The Dangerous Allure Of Technology

Opinion: As retailers start using technology more creatively, the rule of unintended consequences will have them selling ideas they never wanted to sell.

One of the most disheartening things for a technology journalist to learn is that a lot of readers look at magazines to see the ads.

Well, maybe not solely to look at the ads, but the fact that readers even glance at those dastardly marketing con jobs is enough to make us weep in our espressos.

The truth is that a well-done, intelligently written ad often contains technical information, and the vendors position about why its product is useful. But a poorly done ad is akin to those meal-interrupting telemarketers, who have no idea about—nor do they particularly care—what theyre selling.

I bring this up because of some strongly-worded e-mail readers have sent about a story we ran recently about Circuit City. That piece told of the Circuit City CIOs ideas for ways to connect more closely with customers. If the readers comments were any indication, customers might not appreciate the kind of attention the CIO was suggesting.

One of the ideas, for example, involved giving customers wireless headphones that would broadcast location-relevant ads and allow customers to ask questions of personnel.

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read more about high-tech retail marketing efforts—such as customized video displayers in dressing rooms, click here.

The distinction between those two ideas—playing an ad and offering assistance—is a lot more subtle than one might assume. Is an ad annoying, intrusive or helpful? It truly depends on the ad.

Will the connection to a virtual rep be helpful? Some readers reacted unhappily to the idea, suggesting that theyd rather see the associates stop gabbing in the corner and focus on the customers instead of having some long-distance, disembodied rep bark into their ear.

The irony is that those same readers might also complain about the terrible lack of technological sophistication of those associates when they do come over to help. (By the way, the readers comments were extended to all retailers and not just Circuit City.) If those disembodied voices came from products specialists who understand DVD recorders far better than the average store associate, I would applaud the move and could see this as a true win-win.

/zimages/6/28571.gifConcerns about possible negative impressions made by inexperienced associates prompted one retailer to prohibit seasonal help from talking with customers. To read more, click here.

I will give all of my retail business to the first chain that announces the following policy: If one of our associates gives you an incorrect answer about a product, the store will give you one of those products for free, along with a free extended service plan and free delivery and installation.

Without such a policy, theres absolutely no penalty for a floor associate who just makes up whatever answer he thinks the customer wants to hear. If retailers can combine wireless technology with RFID (to determine what products the customer is near when he/she hits the "help" button), they have the potential to address a typical customers largest complaint.

But if retailers use that technology to blast random commercials at customers and connect them with telemarketers who know less about the products than the customer does, it will likely make matters worse.

In short, technology should be a convenience, making it easier for retailers to do what they should be doing anyway. If retailers are going to not be picky about who they hire and/or fail to train them properly, using a T3 connection to a VOIP hookup and using satellites and RFID to triangulate the customers wallet wont help.

Next Page: More technology overdependence: McDonalds and Dodge.