Friday, October 10, 2008

Tools to Help Us Pick Out Products - Do They Work?

Most stores’ tech investment has focused on lowering labor costs and inventory expenses for management. Here are three new tools intended to improve the shopping experience for consumers by helping us choose merchandise that’s “right” for us.

Tool #1- Scentsa: I love perfume. I always have. There are 8 different fragrances in my medicine cabinet right now, and I bought half of them myself. I always appreciate receiving perfume as a gift because I find the perfume department overwhelming, and once I test one fragrance, they all begin to smell the same. So, I’m not very adventurous when it comes to fragrance I select for myself.

The latest issue Stores magazine has a story about a state-of-the-art custom program developed especially for Sephora stores called Scentsa Fragrance Finder. Scentsa will be tested in 20 of its 190 stores. Clients can use Scentsa to locate a fragrance favorite or discover a new one. It sounds perfect for me! I envision it working like Amazon’s recommendation engine – people who like Jo Malone's Vetyver also like Acqua di Parma's Colonia Assoluta. I haven’t tried Scentsa in person yet, but hope to get to a Sephora soon to check this out. Score one for Sephora.

Tool #2 – COOL: As food safety issues have cropped up (pun intended) in the US, China, and elsewhere this year, consumers have become understandably anxious to know that the food they eat is safe. With the weakening of the regulations designed to protect consumers, we rely increasingly on growers and retailers to pick up the slack. Some consumers buy organic produce as a way to screen out harmful food.

Another approach meant to improve our shopping experience – country of origin labeling – (COOL) went into effect this month. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, supermarkets and other big food retailers are now required to display country of origin labels on meat, produce and certain kinds of nuts. Though supposedly intended to create accountability in the food supply, it’s clear that protectionism played a big part in the push for mandatory food labeling. And it's unclear that knowing the country food is from makes it any safer, and there are plenty of cases of e.coli in domestically produced food. As a result, I’m not sure this one’s a winner.

Tool #3 - Digital Ad Displays: I am not the primary shopper in my house, but I do a substantial minority of the shopping for our family. In some categories (groceries) I am a mission shopper – I want to get in and out, I know what I need, and I generally stick to the list. In other categories, I wander around looking for inspiration. Sometimes I find it in the merchandise displays, sometimes I’m inspired by what other customers are buying. Plenty of times, though, I wander around touching the merchandise but uncertain or unmoved. Sound familiar? If so, the latest incarnation of in-store digital ad displays may help. reported last month that “stores and restaurants are now starting to use the technology for real-time promotions, instantly tailoring their sales pitches to match individual customers' selections or variations in product availability.”

While I’m not looking for any more ads in my life, I can see how the right type of ad could be helpful when I’m wandering around a store empty-handed. According to the In-Store Marketing Institute, “70% of [purchase] decisions are made in-store.” So, ads that can inspire us, for example by showing us how to put a look together effortlessly, can help us choose and help stores make a sale. A short “how-to” could be just the thing.

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