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Watch out robots – the humans are coming

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Earlier this week, the BBC reported that Canadian firm, Sunrise Records, has emerged as the buyer of struggling music retail brand HMV, saving 100 stores and nearly 1,500 jobs in the process. Aside from being delighted to see such an iconic British brand live to see another day, my first thought was, “so what has Sunrise Records’ Chief Executive Doug Putman got up his sleeve to save the bricks and mortar music shopping experience?”. In-store robots that can guide you straight to the perfect vinyl powered by an AI-based analysis of your previous musical tastes? Hologram versions of rock stars playing their latest hits live in-store (I might just suggest that)? And then, reading the BBC’s report, it hit me: Mr Putman’s secret weapon is humans.

There’s a lot of discussion going on at the moment about how the high street can be saved from the lure of ecommerce. Technology looms large in the conversation, with many questioning if innovation is the answer to establishing experiential retail in stores, providing Millennials and Gen-Z with a reason to abandon the convenience of online. So against this backdrop, who would have thought that the way to save HMV may actually be a little more conversation, a little less action (please)?

Talking to BBC Radio 4, Mr Putman commented that, “people like to come into a store, have an experience, talk with someone who understands music, loves music, loves video and entertainment.” It’s so obvious but so right. Yes there’s a place for experience and the whizz bang that comes with augmented reality and robots, but face-to-face engagement with, and advice from, knowledgeable and passionate humans in store is one point of differentiation that is very difficult to replicate online.

With the best will in the world, a live online chat service can’t host a passionate discussion about the merits of Bowie vs Bono. For those that have a deep interest in music, fashion, literature, art (the list could go on), sharing knowledge and ideas can be an important part of the retail experience and, in my opinion, it is smart of Sunrise Records to have identified this. Music, art, fashion – these are all items that people are willing to spend money on, but for many people there is an emotional element to the purchase that they want to connect with someone over. Buying a piece of physical music or couture fashion requires discussion and emotional investment in the way that buying a washing machine does not.

Doug Putman is only at the beginning of the road on his journey with HMV and we don’t yet know how it will turn out – but as a guy who had his first successful business venture at the age of just 16, my feeling is that this is a man who knows what he is talking about. And let’s say his strategy is a screaming success for HMV – what might this mean for other sectors? Sommeliers in the wine department at Waitrose? Interior designers doling out advice at DFS? I can’t help but think that a touch of human expertise and passion could go a long way in providing the in-store retail experience that people are looking for. So watch out robots - you haven’t conquered us yet.

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Gary Rohloff

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