Rather than lament the death of retail, let's celebrate the rebirth of customer service
I can't remember the last time I visited a physical store solely because I wanted to buy a new smartphone, tablet, or other consumer electronics product. It's often cheaper and more convenient to buy something through Amazon than it is to drive to a retail outlet, find what I'm looking for, and dodge the cashier's attempts to sell me some rewards card or another before finally letting me complete the transaction and bolt for the door.
That doesn't mean that I want these physical stores to disappear, however. Quite the opposite. It's just that I use them as a place to consult with trained employees, browse the latest and greatest products, and kill some time while my fiancée visits the mini-mall known as JC Penney. And that's why today's news that AT&T, like Apple and Microsoft before it, is going to change its retail stores to facilitate such experiences is so exciting.
AT&T announced this week that it plans to replace its hellish stores with new, customer-focused stores replete with the white walls, wooden tables, and personable employees that Apple popularized and Microsoft co-opted for its own stores. Soon you won't be able to walk into a consumer electronics store without being confronted by smiling, knowledgeable employees who are willing to work with you instead of simply prodding you to make a purchase. Or that's the idea, anyway.
“Transactions belong on the Web, and interactions belong in the store,” AT&T retail head Paul Roth told AllThingsD. He, like PandoDaily investor Marc Andreessen, believes that retail stores will change in the coming years. “A retailer that is just in the transactions business is going to be out of business," Roth said.
This contention might come off a bit strong -- the word "death" tends to have that effect -- but we've begun to see retail outlets and ecommerce companies alike adapt to these changing times. As we've pointed out before, companies like Bonobos and Warby Parker use both physical and online stores to great effect. Online stores don't have to act as a parasite that grows solely by stealing customers from their physical counterparts, which is what happens when retail stores don't offer any benefit over shopping online.
Such stores open themselves up to "showrooming," a practice through which consumers use stores like Best Buy or Walmart as a place to find new products that they ultimately purchase through Amazon or other online stores. All other things being equal, why would they not purchase something online, pay less money, and not have to deal with transporting the object themselves? Offering another reason to visit the store -- like, say, being able to use products in a better context than Best Buy's cramped aisles, or speaking with someone who actually knows about the products they're selling -- might change that.
I experienced this just yesterday when my fiancée and I visited an Apple Store to see if we could get her laptop, which hadn't worked in months, fixed. The problem turned out to be the laptop's charger -- an issue that couldn't be diagnosed at home because we didn't have a charger that works with her laptop. We bought a new charger, grabbed an AirPort Extreme, and then chatted with the Apple employee who helped us out and rang us up. I spent around $300 in the store simply because it was the best place to find the solution to a problem that had plagued us for months.
Could we have purchased a charger online just to see if that would solve the problem? Absolutely. But it was easier to drive to the Apple Store where we knew that someone would be willing to take the time to solve the problem even if we hadn't made a reservation or didn't want to pay for repairs. You can't get that from a website, no matter how high your Klout score is or how many times they nag you to chat with a customer representative.