CBX Expert: Technology Can Alienate Retailers From Their Customers

“Smartphone addicts pay more attention to incoming texts than they do to the living, breathing human beings standing in front of them,” Sundstad said. “Many retailers focus overmuch on tech tactics such as video walls or geo-fencing, or on big-picture analytics about customers and markets. But the foundation of your brand strategy should be to forge meaningful, lasting relationships with actual people in the here and now — especially when your competition includes the likes of Amazon.”

Sundstad, a 35-year veteran of the retail design business, gave the talk (“Why Algorithms Can’t Dance: 5 Trends that are Humanizing Retail”) on May 24 at Cincinnati-based RDI’s Pacific Northwest regional event. The audience included leading retail design professionals as well as executives from major retailers such as Nordstrom, Ethan Allen and Amazon.

Whether in life or retail, a singular focus on technology can lead to alienation and disconnection, Sundstad asserted during the presentation. “Brand-building strategies need to hinge on the principles of building solid, long-lasting human relationships,” he said. “After you forge that connection on a human level, then, yes, you can use technology to enhance it. The key is to remember that technology is never a substitute.”

Sundstad outlined five principles for humanizing retail and building customer connections.

The first — “Do ‘You'” — hinges on the need for authenticity, he explained. “In a relationship, whether you’re a romantic or the outdoorsy type or a homebody, just own who you are. Your partner will always see and appreciate the real you.” Sundstad asked the audience to imagine a Twinkies package touting ingredients such as cane sugar, organic flour and farm-to-table, hand-churned butter made from grass-fed cows. “People would never believe it,” he said. “Better for Twinkies to embrace its ‘badness,’ its unhealthiness. If I want a Twinkie, I want it for all its caloric, indulgent, unhealthy glory. As a brand, in other words, it’s OK to be who you really are.”

The second principle — “Get Tribal” — focuses on the central role of community in human relationships. “It’s all about this idea of finding connection with people who are like-minded,” Sundstad said. “We need to create retail environments where people are motivated to come together around products and causes they believe in.” The retail design veteran pointed to popular fitness studio SoulCycle. “People joke about belonging to the ‘SoulCycle tribe,'” he said. “Creating a tribe is all about finding what motivates your customers and then giving them an environment in which to experience it with others. This encourages true connection.”

Just as honesty is one of the keys to friendships or romantic relationships, the third principle — “Get Naked” — focuses on the need to build trust with customers. “Customers today want to know everything about your brand,” Sundstad told the audience. “The more open and honest you are with them, the better off you’ll be in the long run.” He cited the online clothing company Everlane, which provides customers with a detailed accounting of its markups, sourcing, costs and more as part of a drive toward what it calls “radical transparency.”

Relationships can sometimes grow stale with time. The fourth principle — “Keep it Interesting” — highlights the need for continual reengagement. “It’s about keeping the spice of the relationship going and not falling into a predictable pattern,” said Sundstad, who has worked with retailers such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Walgreens, to name a few. “What are you doing to create a different experience each time people come into your store? Once they enter your store, how are you making it fun and interesting? Are you encouraging connection?”

Lastly, retailers can better connect with people if they “Shut Up and Dance,” Sundstad said. Dancing with a partner is never a one-sided affair, and yet many retailers simply present themselves to their customers, without asking or expecting anything in return. “Good dancers closely engage with their partners, read their responses and then react in real time,” he explained. “Likewise, you want to create a customer engagement — a dance — that is mutual, empowering and encouraging.” He cited Pret A Manger, where employees playfully give away free food to customers who engage with them by dancing, telling jokes or otherwise pleasing them. “It’s a delightful approach. Pret’s employees are literally dancing with their customers,” Sundstad related.

“The speed of life is always moving faster and faster, but it is time to slow down and connect — human-to-human, brand-to-customer,” he concluded. “Algorithms can’t dance, but you can.”