If In-Store Experience Falls Short, Product Quality Doesn’t Matter
Most consumers aren’t in the habit of shopping in stores they dislike — and who could blame them? After all, a store visit requires them to leave their homes, sit in traffic, and physically search for the products that they want. Why would they go to the effort that traditional shopping requires if they know that the employees they meet will be rude, the store layout confusing, and the overall experience frustrating?
The truth of the matter is that if your customers find their time in-store underwhelming, the quality of your product won’t matter. They will go elsewhere — and in the digital age, “elsewhere” usually means “online.”
Online shopping has ushered in an entirely new definition for consumer convenience in retail. Digital experiences are painstakingly personalized; as one writer for the 2019 Store Experience Study describes, “Since the rise of the Internet, retailers have done an exemplary job of making their customers feel like royalty each and every time they were engaged online. Retailers made it easy to find items (which were always in stock), knew their purchase history, knew their likes and dislikes, and made suggestions for complementary or supplementary products.”
The cherry on top, of course, is that once a customer swipes, clicks, and taps their way through the ordering process, they can expect their chosen product to arrive at their doorstep within a few short days.
When faced with that degree of convenience, how can traditional brick-and-mortar retailers compete? Younger consumers have already enthusiastically taken to online shopping; according to statistics from Kinsta, roughly 67% of millennials and 56% of Gen X’ers prefer buying online to browsing a physical store.
While online shopping might have claimed top marks for convenience, brick-and-mortar stores are on the verge of reclaiming customers on the basis of shopping experience. If retailers can prove to their consumers that an hour-long store visit is an entertaining diversion, rather than a chore, they may have the chance to redefine consumer expectations for in-person shopping and revitalize the brick-and-mortar landscape.
This shift is already underway. According to the Store Experience Study mentioned above, retailers have begun focusing on personalizing customer experience (51%), empowering store associates to provide better service (48%), and rethinking the design of the in-store customer journey (31%) — all to boost consumers’ interest in in-store shopping. This new strategic focus has likely contributed to the recent uptick of brick-and-mortar performance. As of 2018, retail sales had risen nearly 6% since the year before, and roughly 3,600 net new stores had opened their doors.
The answer is clear: retailers need to recast the shopping experience as a form of convenient entertainment, rather than a digitally-avoidable trip. Below, I’ve listed a few ways to do so.
Rethink the Purpose of a Shopping Trip
When consumers visit stores in the future, they should come out of interest — not necessity. Retailers need to incorporate entertainment and engagement elements into their customer journey designs.
Consider J.C. Penney’s recent redesign of a store in Hurst, Texas, as an example. Described by the company’s leaders as “experiential at its core,” the redesign incorporates service offerings into its lifestyle brand. Now, customers can not only purchase makeup in the beauty section but also undergo a workshop on how to achieve model-perfect looks while in-store. Similarly, the store has begun offering fitness classes alongside their activewear brands.
The department store also recently launched a partnership with Pinterest to help shoppers better explore the store’s offerings during a home decor refresh. Using J.C. Penney’s in-store tool, shoppers can answer a few simple questions and see a curated Pinterest board that lists J.C. Penney products suited to their needs and tastes.
It is too early to know if this revolutionary approach to experiential shopping will pay off. If it does, however, J.C. Penney may have created an innovative blueprint for future department stores.
Meld Digital Convenience With In-Store Experience
Brick and mortar stores may not be defined by technology, but they can certainly benefit from it. By weaving technology into their in-store experiential strategy, traditional retailers can provide the same convenience that e-retailers pride themselves on offering. With an app, for example, retailers could theoretically allow consumers to schedule a fast pickup, repay online, check to see if a given item is in stock, or even access exclusive digital coupons. Such a strategy would make in-store shopping nearly as quick and convenient as online shopping — if not more so, given that consumers don’t need to wait for their item to be delivered.
In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the digital age won’t spell the end for traditional retail. Instead, it will challenge brick-and-mortar stores to reinvent the in-person shopping experience to be more engaging, entertaining, and convenient than ever before.
Originally published on ScoreNYC
In the Digital Age, Companies Need a Human Touch
Today, a customer’s entire experience with a company — from first inquiry to final transaction — can and often does occur entirely online. Many consumers seem to prefer it that way, too. According to data collected by Nextiva, 57% of surveyed respondents said that they would rather contact companies via email or social media, instead of by voice-based customer support.
The shift to a tech-savvy business foundation isn’t just convenient for consumers — it comes with considerable benefits for businesses too. In one report published by Juniper Research, analysts projected that automated systems would save a collective $8 billion in customer support costs by 2022. That’s a compelling financial argument for businesses. Smart Insights estimates that 34% of companies have already undergone a digital transformation, while researchers for Seagate anticipate that over 60% of CEOs globally will begin prioritizing digital strategies to improve customer experience by the end of this year.
Integrating technology into our day-to-day business operations is a no-brainer, given its potential to lessen costs, boost convenience, and improve consumer experiences. However, in our race to meet the digital age, we may be leaving one critical aspect of customer service behind: human connection.
As much as consumers appreciate the convenience and speed that digital tools and systems facilitate, they also need to feel a genuine human connection and know that there are people behind the AI-powered customer hotline. As one writer puts the matter in an article for Business Insider, “A satisfactory customer experience depends on how well a company can relate to a customer on an emotional level. To create memorable experiences, employees who are curious and have a genuine desire to assist the customers can set brands apart.”
Business consultant Chris Malone and social psychologist Susan T. Fiske researched this emotional connection for their book, The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies. In the text, they write that consumers gravitate towards companies similarly to how they flock to friends; if they perceive a business as being emotionally warm and welcoming, but not particularly competent, they will still enjoy the experience and like the brand. In contrast, if a company is competent but cold in its customer engagement, consumers tend to visit only when circumstances demand it.
The ideal, they say, is for companies to be both warm and competent. Within the context of our digitally-driven world, striking that balance means integrating consumer service technology without wholly excising human personality.
Businesses need to identify when their AI-powered chatbot or customer service channel crosses over the line from useful to canned or frustrating. Sometimes, a robot voice just isn’t helpful enough; according to statistics published by American Express, 40% of customers prefer talking to a human service representative when they struggle with complex problems. Consumers should have the means to reach out to human representatives if they can’t solve their problems through automated channels.
People want to connect with a brand that has personality, voice, and empathy — even across digital channels. Social media platforms have evolved into significant touchpoints for businesses today; researchers for Nextiva estimate that over 35% of consumers in the U.S. reached out to a business through social media in 2017. Their expectations, too, are significant — 48% of the customers who contact a company via social media expect a response to their questions or complaints within 24 hours. Even so, a cold, automated response may be just as ineffective as no response at all.
Emerging technology is not a be-all, end-all, unquestionable solution to our problems. Businesses need to treat digital channels with all the personality, empathy, and care that they would offer during a client call. If they rely on canned responses or AI bots, they may find their consumer pool shrinking as customers defect for companies with more perceived warmth.
Technology is convenient, yes — however, the convenience it creates should never come at the cost of human connection.
Originally published on ScoreNYC
Soon, a “Smart Home” Will Just Be a Home
As the line dividing the internet and the physical world blurs in ever-increasing ways, it shouldn’t be a surprise that online amenities have arrived in the modern home. The growth of smart homes is predicted to increase massively over the next few years, and it’s not hard to see why. They offer convenience and a modern sheen to home living, but more importantly a high-tech layer of security that empowers homeowners to better keep their dwellings and family members safe.
The pitch is a compelling one to homeowners, as well as to investors. According to statistics provided by Statista, analysts anticipate that revenue in the smart home market will grow 15.43% year-over-year. Household penetration currently stands at 27.5% and is further projected to hit 47.4% by 2023. Smart homes are undoubtedly popular; for investors, the growing market could prove lucrative.
Here’s why homeowners are flocking towards smart home technology — and why tech-savvy real estate investors should take notice of the increasing consumer interest.
Staying guarded through tech
The most vulnerable point for most homes is the most common point of entry: the front door. Experts estimate that over a third of burglaries result from unlocked or unsecured front doors, meaning a safely locked entryway can be among the best deterrents from intruders. Smart locks that are activated and deactivated remotely via your home wifi leave homeowners secure in the knowledge that their homes are safely protected while they’re not there. Security-enabled apps like Nest can monitor the status of all entryways, meaning front or side doors can be unlocked for trusted guests or service workers while you’re at work or on vacation. Alerts to your phone can let you know if doors have been breached, meaning you’ll know the instant your home security company does that there’s been a break-in. While this won’t replace being actually there to survey the trouble, it provides some peace of mind to know your home tech is keeping you apprised of all that’s happening while you’re out of reach.
Danger alerts at the speed of WiFi
Crime isn’t the only major danger that smart tech can help homeowners face. The danger of house fires hasn’t been eliminated with technology, but cutting-edge smoke detectors offer a level of security that can only be found when including the most modern safety features. Photoelectric sensors can identify fires by type, catching even smoldering fires with little flame sooner than traditional detectors can. Linked to a smart home sound system, a smoke detector can even use voice notifications to alert you, over home speakers, where the fire is centered and how best to get out. In a situation where split-second decisions can prove life-changing, smart tech is a powerful safeguard for homeowners and their families.
Words of warning
Of course, when it comes to security, smart home tech presents one brand-new vulnerability that homeowners of the past never had to worry about. It may sound odd to consider, but the threat of home hacking is a real danger in a world where locks, smoke alarms, and other fixtures are all internet-enabled. The cat burglar of today may scope out his victims with a laptop or smartphone in hand, ready to attack with malicious software designed to disable home security or just harass and annoy homeowners by disabling appliances and lights.
Fortunately, safeguards against smart home hacking are similar to the ones we already take while online. Expert studies of security flaws found some fixes that ought to be familiar to anyone used to performing a basic cybersecurity routine. Two-factor authentication, strong passwords, and keeping up with regular security updates can keep smart home tech safe from malicious forces both online and in person. While most of us are probably new to downloading security updates to our door locks, the benefits of smarter control over home safety easily outweigh such a relatively minor inconvenience.
Convenience and novelty aren’t the only reasons smart homes have become attractive to buyers in the past decade. The above security features empower homeowners today to take greater control over the sanctity of their property, even when they’re thousands of miles away. For keeping your possessions, your home, and your family safe, smart homes present the next step in control over what happens to our homes. While this new opportunity does admittedly create its own new challenges, the benefits should entice anyone looking to fortify their castle, no matter what size. In the future, we can certainly expect homeowner buy-in — and investor interest — to grow.
Originally published on Medium
Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable
It’s no secret that cable is on its way out. Ever since Netflix’s sparked an explosion of public interest in streaming entertainment with its 2013 series hit House of Cards, traditional channels of access — cable, satellite, dish — have been rendered all but obsolete.
According to reports published by Leichtman Research Group, a firm that centers its research and analysis in the media and entertainment sectors, the six most popular cable companies lost a whopping 910,000 video subscribers in 2018. Satellite TV and DirectTV services fared even worse — analysts estimated that the former lost around 2,360,000 subscribers and the latter 1,236,000 that same year. The sharp decline isn’t new, either; LRG researchers believe that the user base for traditional services has sunk by nearly ten million since the first quarter of 2012.
Streaming is slowly outmoding cable — except, of course, in cases where cable has managed to latch onto streaming itself. Interestingly, cable’s primary source of subscription growth has been via virtual MVPDs (vMVPDs), or services that offer a bundle of television channels through the internet without providing traditional data transport infrastructure. LRG analysts estimate that roughly four million subscribers have signed on for vMPVD services such as PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and Hulu Live. But these services seem more like a speedbump on cable’s decline than an actual stop, a gateway service to help longtime cable enthusiasts transition into a streaming norm.
Streaming entertainment is the new normal, and any millennial could build a compelling case for why the change is a good one. After all, why would you pay for expensive cable bundles and struggle with limited viewing schedules when you can see your favorite shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu for less than $15 per month? Streaming offers original content at a reasonable price point and — unlike cable — is accessible from wherever an internet connection is available. It’s so popular that new streaming services have begun popping up like weeds. Apple TV+ goes online on November 1st, Disney+ opens for registration in November, and NBC’s Peacock is set to go live sometime in 2020.
Cable is dying. But will streaming, the reason behind cable’s slow extinction, one day face the same decline?
Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable
As it turns out, the streaming coup we see today may be just another remix of the same old industry song.
Consider the now-giant HBO’s humble roots as an example. The service was arguably the first network to offer premium cable and ask viewers to pay a subscription fee — and it launched its experiment in the town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania shortly after Hurricane Agnes hit the area in 1972. The initiative had a rocky start, reportedly losing nearly $9,000 per month as it struggled to lay cable and pay for a microwave link to transmit entertainment offerings from New York City. But the project ultimately paid off in spades, heralding a new era for paid cable television.
Cable television was new, convenient, and engaging. Its subscribers could view new and exciting content that wasn’t limited by the profanity and nudity guidelines imposed on basic cable programs. Eventually, cable providers began offering bundles to aggregate channels and make accessing paid content easy, convenient, and affordable.
Sound familiar yet?
Today, streaming entertainment services offer the same convenience, aggregation, and affordability that characterized cable — but better. Importantly, they also provide channel subscriptions a la carte, a move which cable companies tended to avoid out of concern that it would negatively impact subscription numbers.
When giants such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime claimed dominance over the market, streaming seemed like the answer to all of cable subscribers’ problems. However, as more niche entertainment stream providers enter the field, we appear to be falling back into cable’s old woes.
Today, viewers have over 300 streaming video services to choose from, each with their own subscription price. Many host original content, knowing that high-quality and exclusive offerings attract subscribers. According to one recent study from Deloitte, 57% of paid streaming users — and 71% of millennial users — report subscribing to access original content. However, users’ willingness to pay for content has its limits. As Deloitte’s researchers put the matter: “nearly one-half (47 percent) are frustrated by the growing number of subscriptions and services they need to piece together to watch what they want. Forty-eight percent say it’s harder to find the content they want to watch when it is spread across multiple services.”
Consumers don’t want to make a patchwork out of their streaming services to get the content they want. The fragmentation and consumer difficulty we face now is likely to intensify, given the sheer number of high-profile streaming platforms set to launch soon. As a result, talk of using bundling as a solution to subscriber frustrations has returned; according to IndieWire, WarnerMedia is reportedly aiming to launch a streaming platform that would bundle HBO, Cinemax, and some Warner Bros. content into one service. It would have a higher price point, too — $16-$17 per month. It seems only fair to expect prices to creep up further as other, competing bundles undergo discussion.
Digital streaming is, without question, more convenient and better-suited to audience needs for affordable original content than paid cable. Streaming’s coup is a well-deserved one. However, it seems naive to think that the problems consumers complained of with cable — higher prices, annoying bundles — won’t appear as time goes on.
Cable is dead. Long live (streaming) cable.
NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers
New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City.
For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”
The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts.
On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off.
Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?
Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers.
Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere.
Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city.
The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people.
AI Fails and What They Teach Us About Emerging Technology
These days, we’ve become all but desensitized to the miraculous convenience of AI. We’re not surprised when we open Netflix to find feeds immediately and perfectly tailored to our tastes, and we’re not taken aback when Facebook’s facial recognition tech picks our face out of a group-picture lineup. Ten years ago, we might have made a polite excuse and beat a quick retreat if we heard a friend asking an invisible person to dim the lights or report the weather. Now, we barely blink — and perhaps wonder if we should get an Echo Dot, too.
We have become so accustomed to AI quietly incorporating itself into almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives that we’ve stopped having hard walls on our perception of possibility. Rather than address new claims of AI’s capabilities with disbelief, we regard it with interested surprise and think — could I use that?
But what happens when AI doesn’t work as well as we expect? What happens when our near-boundless faith in AI’s usefulness is misplaced, and the high-tech tools we’ve begun to rely on start cracking under the weight of the responsibilities we delegate?
Let’s consider an example.
AI Can’t Cure Cancer — Or Can It? An IBM Case Study
When IBM’s Watson debuted in 2014, it charmed investors, consumers, and tech aficionados alike. Proponents boasted that Watson’s information-gathering capabilities would make it an invaluable resource for doctors who might otherwise not have the time or opportunity to keep up with the constant influx of medical knowledge. During a demo that same year, Watson dazzled industry professionals and investors by analyzing an eclectic collection of symptoms and offering a series of potential diagnoses, each ranked by the system’s confidence and linked to relevant medical literature. The AI’s clear knowledge of rare disease and its ability to provide diagnostic conclusions was both impressive and inspiring.
Watson’s positive impression spurred investment. Encouraged by the AI’s potential, MD Anderson, a cancer center within the University of Texas, signed a multi-million dollar contract with IBM to apply Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to its fight against cancer. Watson for Oncology was meant to parse enormous quantities of case data and provide novel insights that would help doctors provide better and more effective care to cancer patients.
Unfortunately, the tool didn’t exactly deliver on its marketing pitch.
In 2017, auditors at the University of Texas submitted a caustic report claiming that Watson not only cost MD Anderson over $62 million but also failed to achieve its goals. Doctors lambasted the tool for its propensity to give bad advice; in one memorable case reported by the Verge, the AI suggested that a patient with severe bleeding receive a drug that would worsen their condition. Luckily the patient was hypothetical, and no real people were hurt; however, users were still understandably annoyed by Watson’s apparent ineptitude. As one particularly scathing doctor said in a report for IBM, “This product is a piece of s—. We bought it for marketing and with hopes that you would achieve the vision. We can’t use it for most cases.”
But is the project’s failure to deliver on its hype all Watson’s fault? Not exactly.
Watson’s main flaw was with implementation, not technology. When the project began, doctors entered real patient data as intended. However, Watson’s guidelines changed often enough that updating those cases became a chore; soon, users switched to hypothetical examples. This meant that Watson could only make suggestions based on the treatment preferences and information provided by a few doctors, rather than the actual data from an entire cancer center, thereby skewing the advice it provided.
Moreover, the AI’s ability to discern connections is only useful to a point. It can note a pattern between a patient with a given illness, their condition, and the medications prescribed, but any conclusions drawn from such analysis would be tenuous at best. The AI cannot definitively determine whether a link is correlation, causation, or mere coincidence — and thus risks providing diagnostic conclusions without evidence-based backing.
Given the lack of user support and the shortage of real information, is it any surprise that Watson failed to deliver innovative answers?
What Does Watson’s Failure Teach Us?
Watson’s problem is more human than it is technical. There are three major lessons that we can pull from the AI’s crash:
We Need to Check Our Expectations.
We tend to believe that AI and emerging technology can achieve what its developers say that it can. However, as Watson’s inability to separate correlation and causation demonstrates, the potential we read in marketing copy can be overinflated. As users, we need to have a better understanding and skepticism of emerging technology before we begin relying on it.
Tools Must Be Well-Integrated.
If doctors had been able to use the Watson interface without continually needing to revise their submissions for new guidelines, they might have provided more real patient information and used the tool more often than they did. This, in turn, may have allowed Watson to be more effective in the role it was assigned. Considering the needs of the human user is just as important as considering the technical requirements of the tool (if not more so).
We Must Be Careful
If the scientists at MD Anderson hadn’t been so careful, or if they had followed Watson blindly, real patients could have been at risk. We can never allow our faith in an emerging tool to be so inflated that we lose sight of the people it’s meant to help.
Emerging technology is exciting, yes — but we also need to take the time to address the moral and practical implications of how we bring that seemingly-capable technology into our lives. At the very least, it would seem wise to be a little more skeptical in our faith.
Bennat Berger is an NYC-based tech writer, investor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Novel Property Ventures, a company that specializes in finding, acquiring, and managing high-potential multifamily residential units in New York City. Berger is also the founder of Novel Private Equity, a private equity firm that gives tech startups the support they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive business market.