Is Mobile Retailing Turning Us Into Rats?

January 20, 2011

When you were in school, did you learn about BF Skinner and his rat experiment?

Inside the cage there was a lever that, when pressed, caused a mechanism to release a piece of food. The rat that was sniffing and exploring accidentally presses the lever and food falls into the cage! Pretty soon, the rat is clicking away at the bar, hoarding his pile of food in the corner of the cage.

I was at the National Retail Federations’ Big Show last week and the buzzwords were all about “mobile.” Everyone was doing it. We were told you needed to be “customer centric” give them what they want, when they want it, how they want it.

We were told the “new customer” was pickier and less loyal. They were shopping for price but demanding more. Sort of like, “I’m expecting you to give me great service even though I’ll use my smartphone to find the cheapest price from your competitor and leave you hanging.”

We were told that retailers need to be very concerned with ratings of Facebook fans and other online sites because they provide “reliable information” to shoppers. It was implied we shouldn’t trust a person on the floor because they obviously couldn’t know as much as the customer could pull up on our smartphone.

You can see an eight minute discussion between myself, David Polinchock and Marge Laney about this issue below [youtube][/youtube]

This whole culture of mobile in my opinion is driving a fundamentally flawed idea that retailers should want to change customers’ behavior. This is all done under the guise of “listening to our customers.”

Really? I haven’t found one person in my circles or travels who has ever said, “I wish more stores would let me shop on my smartphone in their stores.”

Yet we are being programmed to check-in so we can get a coupon to save even money. We are being programmed to get an email, buy a coupon with LivingSocial, Groupon and their clones. We are to accept as normal that if there is a line, we as customers should whip out a smartphone, snap a pic, click to have it sent to us to avoid having to wait in line. Or we’ll enter a department and an app will beam a path to a sale item.

In short, we’re all becoming rats to push the levers to get the cheese.[youtube][/youtube]

Yes social media can let you have a community you’ve never had before but what about the community of the people in front of you? How can technology be used by employees to engage customers better? What about teaching employees how to engage customers, not run and hide from them?

As Skinner proved eighty years ago, a behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future.

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