by Scott Ikeda -- March 09, 2015

The other day, as I walked through Pike Place Market, I smelled fish in the air, heard the bustling of bouquet creation, and saw the tourists admiring our ‘dead fish museum’ as they anxiously awaited the next flying fish. A few buskers entertained the crowd. “A typical day,” I thought as I passed through the crowd drinking a Starbucks on my way to Beecher's.

As I pulled out my iPhone, intending to check-in on Foursquare, I realized the sun was hitting the Market sign just right and snapped a quick selfie. I uploaded it to Instagram and then shot a video of an unsuspecting tourist as he was startled by a not-so-bronzed statue. Definitely a clip for YouTube! I also posted it to my Facebook page and tweeted about it. For fun, I videoed the remainder of my walk through the Market on my 3.5-inch screen and ended my video with an epic shot of my bowl of mac and cheese.

Sound familiar? We have advanced past the Experience Economy, where the mere act of having an “experience” was sufficient to provide meaningful value, to an age that incorporates social media in that same “experience” – what some have dubbed as the Social [Media] Economy. While we still enjoy an experience, we also like to immediately share it with others.

How does the Social Economy age translate to the retail world? And how should retailers adapt to this concept?

The delivery of an experience remains an essential customer expectation. For instance, when a customer enters an outdoor retail store today, they almost certainly expect to find a gigantic rock wall and a store laid out as if they were hiking in the woods. How might this same outdoor retailer extend the same experience in the new social economy, where customers are increasingly tethered to their mobile device?  One idea might be to tie the act of navigating the store to the common experience of navigating in a forest; customers could then use the store’s mobile app with iBeacon to navigate their way to the carabiner aisle, just as they might find their way out of the woods.

Another way retailers manage the blending of experience and social economies is through high-touch practices. Several years ago, Nordstrom completed a pilot program with customers shopping for sunglasses. Sales Associates were encouraged to engage with these customers as they tried on a variety of styles and colors. The Sales Associates shared the idea with customers to take selfies for a side-by-side photo comparison of their favorite styles, and suggested they upload their selfies to their Facebook pages to seek opinions. This approach enabled friends and families of the customer to provide real-time feedback and help influence their purchasing decisions.

In these two examples, both retailers maintained a focus on their customers, while encouraging the use of technology. They successfully put the humans who shop with them at the center of their respective designs.

Technology surrounds us, whether in a device or through data, and it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of interacting with the individual customers attached to a particular device or data point. Though analytics can help derive key insights from a large population (or dataset), the numbers convey only part of the story. Retailers must not allow aggregated data to obscure the individual customer stories that lie behind the data.  Understanding how the customer thought and felt during the transaction, as well as what influenced their purchasing decisions, is crucial for retailers seeking an ongoing connection with their customer.

Technology is an enabler - a means to greater efficiency and automation.  But it must be used in conjunction with a personal touch. We are all looking for the quickest, easiest, or most meaningful way to stay connected, to have an experience, and to interact with one another. Occasionally that does force you to put down your mobile device, look up, and say “Hello.”