5 x 5 - Retail Service Design, Eric Johnson

Interview with Eric Johnson, consultant in digital products and services

by Thomas Brandenburg

Instead of retailers looking at whatever the next new buzz word technology is, (Beacons, AR-VR, AI) they should look at what is truly useful through the holistic lens of service design.

1.What do you consider as the disruptive trend(s) that are affecting the retail industry that seem most promising?

Little by little retail is migrating its way into our homes to save us time. Same day delivery of online items, voice-activated devices like Alexa, and before long VR, are bringing the store to your home. Amazon is now trying to own your weekly grocery-shopping list with its proposed purchase of whole foods. I recently set up an Amazon Alexa at my 70-year-old parents house and have been surprised by how much my mother enjoys interacting with the device, which informs her about the weather and other factoids first thing in the morning. She generally avoids using their computer, but she gets a kick out of the humorous and humanized interaction she has with Alexa.

2. What are the biggest challenge(s) of scaling services in your specific retail sector today?

Retail is under increasing pressure to provide ever improving customer experience at multiple touch points with fewer in-store associates. In order for store associates provide a better experience, they will need to be armed with well-designed front and back of stage tools and processes, which are supported by multiple internal groups.The projects that I have been involved with over the past several years has really brought to light how difficult it can be for a retailer to maintain in-store technology supporting in-store services. Hardware, software development, networking, and technical support costs add up quickly when you roll a new service to 200 store, let alone 1,000. You can roll out a great service like buy online and pickup at store but if the store associate who is gathering the items for pickup has a mobile device that does not have photos of the products that were ordered, and mistakenly selects a couple wrong products, you now have spent a lot of time and money on an experience that will be twice as disappointing to the customer because he or she have invested time and effort.

3. What brands or retailers come to mind when you think about service innovation in this industry?

The example that comes to mind is not retail but indicates one direction I see service innovation heading. McDonald’s has opened a prototype store in Chicago where the ordering and pickup process has been re-imagined. After 60+ years, the process of ordering a burger and fries has been redesigned so that you don’t have to wait for your food while attempting to stand in a location to not look like you are waiting to order. You can order using a touch screen or at a register and then your food is brought to your table. McDonald’s has been innovating the back of stage operations for years and now has made the ordering process much less stressful, you order and go find a seat. The same number of employees are now providing a new, improved level of service.

4. Besides having a mindset and the skill set for service design what other knowledge, experience or skills do you see as valuable for a designer to have in his or her repertoire today?

The language and terminology of service design can be a lot to process and decipher for those who have not been exposed to it before. Over the course of my career I have seen many styles of communication. Many smart people can fall into the trap of “using too many words” leaving their audience with a vague idea of what had been presented. Speak in the language of the business or your organization. Use stories to bring the meaning and value of service design to life. In your stories, highlight how decisions made in silos have unforeseen impacts on what the customer experiences especially if the business units don’t visit their stores on a regular basis. For example, a confusing sales promotion can have a huge impact on the lines at checkout. If you have multiple business units with multiple confusing offers even customers who are not interested in the promotion are forced to wait in long lines. Showing an example is always more powerful than telling someone about a process.

5. What would you like to see happen for the future of service design in retail?

Whenever I hear about an organization needing to “transform”, I see a perfect opportunity for service design because there is a real opportunity to have an impact. Many retailers are closing stores or dying off because of increasing online sales and a shift from buying things to buying experiences. Instead of retailers looking at whatever the next new buzz word technology is, (Beacons, AR-VR, AI) they should look at what is truly useful through the holistic lens of service design. There are so many issues that a service design focused approach can solve and many more truly useful innovations that can be invented. Service design methodologies can help get the entire organization moving in the same direction to make the innovation possible.

Bonus question—What service design strategies would you use to steal customers from Amazon?

Although Walmart has started experimenting with refrigerated online order pickup kiosks, I am very curious to see how Amazon disrupts the grocery industry if their bid for Whole Foods goes forward. Walmart, Costco, Kmart, and Target rely on grocery shopping to drive frequent repeat business. Walmart has started rolling out refrigerated online order pickup kiosks at some of their stores. Owning the weekly grocery and cleaning supply list is the next retail service frontier and the Return on Experience and the Return on Investment should be well worth the effort.

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