Shopping 2.0: Younger Shoppers Using Technology, Not Salespeople

NYT notes: When Nadia Karim goes shopping, she doesn’t wait around for salespeople. She saves items from apps and Web sites on her cellphone as a shopping list. And as she browses one store — recently trying on Sam Edelman flats at Nordstrom — she uses the phone to check out styles at competitors like Macy’s.

“In all honesty, because I shop so much, I feel sometimes I know the brands better than some of the associates,” said Ms. Karim, 26, an analyst at Intel in Phoenix.

For a generation of shoppers raised on Google and e-commerce, the answer to “Can I help you?” is increasingly a firm “no,” even at retailers like Nordstrom that have built their reputations around customer service.

But instead of getting defensive, some stores and brands are embracing the change by creating new personal touches that feature gadgets rather than a doting sales staff. Bobbi Brown has touch-screen televisions to demonstrate the perfect smoky eye, something that was once the exclusive domain of makeup artists. The basketball star LeBron James’s shoe store in Miami has 50 iPads to describe its merchandise. Macy’s is testing cosmetics stations where tablets offer reviews and tips. And at C. Wonder, shoppers use a touchpad to personalize the lighting and music in dressing rooms (there is also a button in case, olden-days style, they need to call for help).

The self-service theme, which started years ago with checkout at groceries, has progressed to the point where shoppers can navigate entire stores without once having to say, “Just looking, thanks.”

Companies are adding the technology now because it has gotten cheap enough to make it feasible and because Apple and other tablet and touch-screen makers are increasing their sales efforts. Stores also don’t want to risk losing those customers who are not content shopping from home but nonetheless prefer Pinterest recommendations, Zappos reviews and Fashism feedback to interacting with someone behind the counter.

“There’s a tendency to believe that if you talk to somebody, they’re going to waste your time or sell you something you don’t need,” said Ricardo Quintero, global general manager of market development for Clinique, which uses touch screens at its counters. “It’s taking the pressure off.”

In Nordstrom’s case, customers have surprised the retailer. Nordstrom introduced an app in the fall that executives expected people would use remotely to order items while they were watching TV or waiting for a train. In addition to that, though, customers used the app while shopping at Nordstrom rather than approach the sales staff.

“How the customer is defining service and wants service to be delivered is changing pretty rapidly, and a lot of that is driven by technology,” said Erik Nordstrom, president of stores for Nordstrom. “A lot of customers like to touch and feel and try on the merchandise, but they also want that information that they get online.”

Nordstrom has added Wi-Fi to almost all its stores, in part so its app will work fast, and is testing charging stations and clusters of iPads and computers. It does not limit what people can do on the in-store devices, Mr. Nordstrom said. “It’s to have our stores be relevant, be a helpful place for people to be whether they’re shopping from us or stopping to check their e-mail,” he said.

The plain truth, some retail analysts say, is that businesses of all sorts have no choice but to accommodate consumers who are trained to do research on their own — and prefer doing so. Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland now gives suite visitors an iPad so they can order food and drinks directly from it, while Aloft Hotels, a Starwood division, has installed tablets instead of concierge stations.

At Land Rover, the addition of online tools for research has cut down sharply on dealer visits. In 2000, people, on average, made 7.5 visits to a dealer before placing an order. In 2010, that figure was 1.3 visits, with shoppers conducting 80 percent of their research on their own, said Andy Goss, president of Jaguar Land Rover North America.

The new technology is also being adapted by manufacturers who have been dependent on employees at big-box stores to sell their products but now see the opportunity for a direct line to the customer.

Scott Paul, chief executive of iPad Enclosures, which installs technology for retailers, said Samsung and other manufacturers were considering adding iPads that offered live video chat with a Samsung salesperson at stores like Best Buy. “You can use the kiosk to do better, in a lot of cases, than a 17- or 18-year-old sales rep,” Mr. Paul said.

The replacement of salespeople with screens is not without its detractors. Some people worry about jobs, though stores say that for now they are not getting rid of employees to accommodate their digital counterparts. And Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that shoppers lost something intrinsic to the human experience when they avoided salespeople.

“The point is not to be nostalgic for the good old days, but to ask ourselves, what kind of society do we want?” said Professor Turkle, the author of “Alone Together,” a book on people’s relationships with technology. With technology replacing human interaction, she said, “you’ve taken out a lot of the richness, the messiness and the demandingness of actually having to deal with people.”

Ms. Karim, the Phoenix shopper, says that she does not avoid all salespeople, but that technology has given her the freedom to be choosy. She still enjoys chatting with makeup-counter salespeople, for example, and getting suggestions from personal shoppers.

“It’s fun to see things in person, and touch the fabrics, and try on shoes,” she said. “It’s a social experience.”

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