What if process, fulfillment and customer service were the immersive experience?

When I go into a store today, I’m a bit unsettled. Not in a bad way, just a new way. This is largely because each store functions differently. Each has their own COVID-induced protocols. Most are still figuring it out — and changing, but I’m unsure about how I’m supposed to act. Most have boxes open all over the place, a delivery person hovering somewhere in the store. The other day a guy followed my partner and I around the store with a spray bottle to re-sanitize us if either of us touched our phones while in the store. That was in my opinion a bit much, but okay. The point is that I’m okay with this. I’m okay with all of the new tasks, the online orders that now have to be fulfilled, the cleaning, all of it. Absolutely fine with it. In fact, I’m so fine with it that I think it’s created a unique opportunity. A concept that will absolutely revolutionize the face of retail as we know. I think. So, here’s the big idea: What if process, fulfillment and customer service were the immersive experience? What if there were no back of house? What if all the machinations of the store were exposed, laid bare and perhaps even turned into theater? The immersive working store experience.

There’s been a dynamic shift in this whole experience of shopping. Sure, there’s an increase in e-commerce as was expected, but there’s been a change in the whole customer associate relationship. The terms have changed. I am no longer the center of the universe, and the attention of all store associates does not need to focus on me. And it’s completely okay!!! Because now, I have a new appreciation. I have a new respect, and I’m mostly just wanting to be gracious and support them. After all, they have what I want, and are quite possibly only hanging by a thread.

Know who you are. Be honest about it, and commit.

If there’s anything Cobra Kai has taught us all, it’s that we are totally OK with making a concession on quality as long as it knows what it is and lives that truth boldly. It’s imperfect in almost every way. It’s trite, poorly acted, and I can’t fucking wait till next season. It has no airs. It’s an imperfect character, but it’s an honest character. And that’s all I really want from my retail experiences as well. Know who you are. Be honest about it, and commit.

Now, this is not without context. I’m not completely spitballing. People love process. We love to see how things tick. We love the post office, because we can see the machinations of mail sorting and processing. We love dry cleaners not so much because of the process of dry cleaning, but because those garment conveyors are fucking awesome! I saw a stat that said over 70% of people prefer open-kitchen restaurants. There are two reasons for this. One is to admire the mastery of the chefs making your food, maybe even hoping to cop some ideas. The other is that it just appears cleaner, more sanitary. It’s a social agreement wherein if you’re willing to expose your process and contents, I’m willing to accept the quality of the craft. Amazon started opening facilities to tours — which had nothing to do with the negative press they were getting about employee conditions. Not. At. All. The tours however were a success.

Honestly, Santa would be way more impressive if he just magically made all these gifts, and they just appeared.

The perception rose. My first factory tour was the Kellogg’s plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was amazing. All the conveyors, the robotics … man, I bet that automation has changed a ton! Why does Santa have a workshop? I mean it makes no difference to kids that these toys were built and manufactured in a factory, by little elves. That’s actually kind of dark now that I write it. Honestly Santa would be way more impressive if he just magically made all these gifts, and they just appeared. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory pretty much sums it all up. The golden ticket — to see the inside of a factory. To know how the magic is made.

The funny thing is that most of the things I listed, the conveyors, the robotics, the sorting systems, have all been used in retail recently. But they’ve really not had purpose beyond contextual narrative devices. Storytelling. But what if they were given purpose? What if they were given utility rooted in the language of a live working store? And we as customers were brought into that narrative? Not only does it enhance associate efficiency and seek to lighten the burden of their load, but it can also create a unique immersive experience for the customer.

The largest consideration in all of this is inventory. The largest disruption that e-commerce has caused is to inventory. You now have multiple revenue streams, but you also have multiple ways of fulfilling, and your inventories at your store (and especially for those with multiple stores) need to be connected and transparent.

Move BOH to FOH. Two points I want to make here. One is logistical. The other is experiential.

1. Move the inventory to the floor. If you have objects that need to remain secure, make them secure, but visible. You don’t need to unpackage everything. Unpackage enough that people can try on or touch or inspect, while leaving the rest in packaging that is ready to either ship or be sold on the floor. By moving this to FOH, you’re literally taking steps out of the equation for store associates. We’re at a place now where we as customers don’t mind if we’re interacting while you’re also preparing an order. The multitasking is part of your job and I’m willing to oblige. This is also where QR codes can be most useful. Choose, scan, pick up at checkout.

2. What’s great about Christmas is what’s great about retail. Unpackaging. The process of unraveling and unveiling the product. We slow ourselves and take our time so that the first interaction is almost spiritual. In a lot of ways, the magic begins to fade as soon as the object is out of the packaging. A new car loses its value as soon as you drive it off the lot, right? An old friend of mine would order packages online, to feel like she was receiving something, like a gift. She’d open them up, go through the unpackaging ritual, and then ship it all right back. The point I’m trying to make is, what’s more special than trying on a shirt and then leaving the store with it? Trying on a shirt, and then leaving with a completely different shirt — in its very own packaging. One that’s never been touched before. So, when I get home, and that tension is at its highest, I will sit down, slowly unpackage that shirt and bask in all of its brand-new glory.

So, while we’re in a bit of a flux, while we’re taking a look at how to move forward beyond COVID, why not look at the whole picture? If we’re going to rewrite the rules, why not change the emphasis to be more balanced between customer and store operations? The customer and store associate experiences aren’t mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite, and my suspicion is that fixing the friction for store associates will likely also address friction and bring clarity for the customer.

An(drew) Jasperse — Sr, Designer, Retail Environments, WONGDOODY