Retail's BIG Show: Don't Be 'Creepy'

           Laura Heller

The word "creepy" isn't one you expect to hear at a retail industry event populated by seasoned professionals, let alone hear a dozen or so times. But "don't be creepy" was a common refrain at the National Retail Federation's BIG Show.

Because in the quest to deploy new technology, to connect with and offer value to the customer, we're seeing a lot of things that cross the line into creepy.

For all the times during my three days at NRF's Big Show, we heard the word creepy so often, we joked that it would make a good drinking game — every time someone said creepy, drink.

It's funny, but also quite serious. Privacy and security are critical, and more so with every new product, implementation and security breach. We're seeing digital assistants in dressing rooms, digital windows that interact with shoppers on the street, wearables and geofencing that promise higher levels of shopper engagement and loyalty. All of these reach into personal space and mine data in ways that sometimes make people cringe.

Embrace the new technology, use the new technology, but don't be creepy. That's the message. Okay, how?

Pushing information rather than offering compelling ways to engage shoppers, to pull them in, is currently the norm. Best in class retailers are developing loyalty programs married to mobile and online applications that draw them in with something of value.

Geo-fencing when used, needs to be subtle. It's a balance between relevancy and privacy, said Johnna Marcus, director, mobile and digital store marketing, Sephora. "Where we get creeped out is when (retailers) push vs pulling us in. It's about figuring out what is important to her and making it relevant." Sephora isn't using geofencing, at least not yet.

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) does and lets loyalty program members know when there's a location nearby with a mobile message. That's ok with Starbucks customers, pointed out Marcus. But they don't want to see a message that says, "it's time for that vanilla latte" when they pass by a store. Creepy vs. useful.

Are screens in the dressing room creepy? On the surface, yes, but if those screens help solve a shopper's problem — view other colors, ask a sales associate for a different size, locate an out of stock item — it becomes less so.

Perhaps the best example of not being creepy came courtesy of Qualcomm Retail Solutions (NASDAQ: QCOM) and its Gimbal platform. BLE beacons placed throughout the Miami Dolphins Sun Life Stadium pair with the Gimbal-enabled Dolphins' app. Fans opt-in and get useful tools like a five minute warning to kickoff for fans still tailgating in the parking lot, and queue management tools that direct people standing in line for beer to a shorter one nearby.

Useful and not creepy. Retail's new gold standard. —Laura