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The Apple-ization of Retail

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Gary Ambrosino was surprised when he picked up his phone to solve a software problem, and the Apple representative mentioned it would be $75 for the call.

But the “a-ha” moment quickly followed: He was told if he went to the Internet, he could schedule an appointment at the nearest Apple store and have the issue serviced for free. Naturally, he did — and once in the store, he passed several items he wanted to purchase on the way to the service area in the back.

“They actually don’t want me to pay $75 for the call,” says Ambrosino, president and COO of customer self-service scheduling company TimeTrade. “They want me to come into the store. And they made it very easy for me to come in, because I knew when I went there at 11 in the morning that there would be a gentleman standing there, ready to help me.”

Released in October, TimeTrade Retail 2.0 is aimed at increasing customer satisfaction, sales and store traffic through multi-channel crossover — as well as helping smooth out the peaks and valleys in the demand for labor. Its predecessor was primarily a backend system that dealt more with scheduling appointments on the web and through e-mail; TimeTrade provides online self-service appointment scheduling for more than 10,000 retail locations worldwide, booking more than 2 million appointments each month.

Version 2.0 incorporates in-store queue management from handheld devices like iPads and iPhones, making customer management a carry-around proposition. This means that when customers enter the store, they could be met by an associate with a mobile device and checked-in for their appointments. If a customer has not made an appointment, that person’s name can be added to a queue visible on an in-store screen, complete with estimated wait time.

“And if the store is really busy — this is a key benefit for retailers — the customer can make an appointment for later on,” Ambrosino says. “They could leave, do some other shopping, and then receive an SMS message that their appointment is coming up in 10 minutes.”

Giving customers what they want
Mike Wittenstein, a customer experience designer, analyst and consultant based in Atlanta, says he first became aware of TimeTrade Retail 2.0 during the inaugural members meeting of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

Not having enough salespeople on the floor is a significant source of frustration for customers and employees, Wittenstein says, and a solution like TimeTrade Retail 2.0 is a “tide-rising opportunity” that can benefit everyone. All other things being equal, he says, retailers who make it easy for customers to transact business will be favored.

The product also allows retailers to learn more about customer behavior. “Retail customers love to have their needs anticipated,” he says, but it’s hard to do without individual information.

Wittenstein believes it will only be a handful of years before customers expect some sort of scheduling capability for the stores they shop in, and the true “Apple-ization of retail” — in which the customer experience drives all else — becomes the norm. Delivering value increasingly means giving individual customers what they want — precisely when they want it.

“In that little bit of time, the moments leading up to the point of purchase, retailers need to be agile,” Wittenstein says. “They need to adjust the way they serve individual customers as close to their point of decision as possible. Any program that can help them do that will be worth their attention.”