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The Return of Intimacy in Retail

In the article Intelligent Retail: The Future of Shopping Experience Design, co-authors Karl Hellman and Mark Blessington hit on some very salient points about a concept they call Intelligent Retail. They discuss using technology to enhance human interactions rather than replace it. It made me think… how did we move from what was once a completely personal, intimate shopping experience to where we are today?

Once upon a time, retail was inherently intimate. We shopped small and local; and we saw the same people, often the owners and their family members each time we visited. It was also inherently intelligent—at least at a human scale. The shopkeepers and sales assistants knew me, remembered what I purchased during my last visit, and what I liked and didn’t like. It was an era of small scale and substance, of human interaction; all of which made intimacy easy to facilitate.

Intimacy in Retail

In the mid-20th century, the Consumer Economy—fueled by the post-WWII boom, suburban expansion, the interstate road system, and the redirection of war-time production to consumer goods—radically changed the role and function of retail.

It’s not that we didn’t value intimacy and familiarity; it’s that we came to value choice and convenience more. The role of distribution came to be the mission of retail. It was driven by size and scale and the ability to give consumers access to as many product options as possible, as easily and inexpensively as possible. And as retailers grew in size—to include both the individual stores and the number of locations—intimacy faded or even disappeared. Think Walmart, Home Depot, Staples, and ToysRUs.

Big Box Retailer

Except for the most bespoke and luxury-minded retailers (and even many, but certainly not all, of them diminished intimacy in return for scale and reach) the retail world operated this way until the dawn of the digital age and ecommerce. And then everything changed (but you didn’t need me to tell you that).

The world of digital retail and online shopping took on the roles of convenience and distribution with a vengeance. It revamped our ideas of home-based shopping, shipping costs, and ease of returns, to name a few. And it brought back one of the most basic aspects of intimacy that Big Retail lost: personalization. Online retailers kept track of what I bought and didn’t buy, of what I seemed to like and didn’t like. It used that information to shape and refine my shopping experience. It had no idea who Frank was as a person, or the sense of context about why Frank made the decision to buy any particular item. But it did have a digital record of my transactions along with millions of others, so it could both remember what I’d done and based on probabilities suggest what else I might want.

The ability to make retail interactions personal and human was lost long ago on the floors of big box retailers, Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney and all of the other storied names of retail. The volume of customer interactions combined with and the amount of transactions occurring made it impossible for retailers to track what customers were or weren’t buying at a human level. And there was no way a sales associate’s notes or “little black book” could track the information that was being created in any meaningful way, and certainly not in any comparison to Amazon’s server farms.

So, digital took on retail’s role as distributor of convenience in a credible way. It added back a component of being known that had been missing from the experience for decades. And physical retail, well it didn’t do much if anything to counter the threat in any way that had a chance of succeeding. Instead it defended its role of Distributor of Convenience with more locations, more choices and more discounts, until most major retail stores looked and felt exactly alike— large indoor flea markets of mass-marketed, badly curated and hard-to-shop stuff.

That brings us to the present day. We are seeing the brick-and-mortar retailers rethinking their value propositions and the role of the store – even rejecting their former primary role as Distributor of Convenience. Certainly many are reducing locations to cut costs and stay solvent. But others are cutting locations to focus on the experience they deliver in their stores. Still others are experimenting with the entire store model, creating show rooms and guide shops with zero inventory on premises for example. This is evolution taking place before our eyes. The digital predator took over a space in the ecosystem. As a result, the best retailers are redefining or even recreating the space they will occupy in the future.

Karl and Mark define that space as intelligent retail. It has components of the digital and physical merged together in a way the pure plays and limited footprint folks can’t match. And at its epicenter, it has a very special asset: the sales associate. Aided by real-time digital intelligence combined with their human insights, they can now add context and intimacy to the brick-and-mortar experience in a way no stand-alone digital database or AI engine can match.

The end result is a rejuvenated intimate shopping experience.

More to come.

Read More: The Return of Intimacy in Retail – Part 2

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