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Travel retail needs less screen-time and more face-time

In the stampede towards e-commerce, digital marketing and in-store technology, are we forgetting the power of the personal approach, asks Hamilton Sargent of Blackjack Promotions

Whatever the trends gurus may be saying about how gadgets will run our lives for us, at the end of the day, most purchasing decisions are still being made by a human being. And we must never forget that in the retail environment, person to person contact is priceless.

Yes, consumers are buying more things online – but when they do go in store, they expect the best possible customer experience, and they expect it to be delivered by a real human being, not a bot.

We might trust an app to put together a basic weekly shopping list for the supermarket shop – and even order it automatically and arrange for it to be delivered — but most of what we buy every week is low interest repeat purchases and brands we are loyal to.

However, when we’re considering purchases that engage our emotions, the process of interacting with a skilled brand ambassador or sales person is an integral element in the whole journey to purchase.

In a car showroom, a designer boutique, a perfume shop, or a high-end electronics store, or when browsing the retail outlets at the airport waiting for a flight, consumers like to have the option of consulting with a living, breathing expert. It’s part of the customer experience.

Over the last year or so, when we’ve been creating experiential activations for our clients, whether to run at airports or shopping centres, we’ve been doing a lot with digital screens and apps. But we’re increasingly finding that building humanity into an activity delivers better quality engagement with the target consumer and better results.

Don’t get me wrong – we are all for exploiting technology to deliver a more streamlined and cost-effective marketing campaign. But technology is a tool, and it should be adding value to what you’re doing, not taking over the world and eliminating the humans entirely.

Because ordinary consumers are spending so much time on their phones, brands and retailers might think that the best way to communicate with them is via technology – so companies are going ‘technology, technology, technology’ when in fact a more powerful campaign can be developed combining technology with highly-effective face-to-face contact.

Marketers may also forget that lots of people are actually using their phones to block out the outside world, not interact with it. Just look at teenagers in a shopping mall, moving around in herds but each one in their own little technology bubble. Don’t forget, consumers are increasingly using apps that block ads and marketing messages.

What we need to do is get them to step outside the bubble and have a real conversation with a real person.

Experiential activations rooted in the real world have enormous power to engage, entertain and excite shoppers. They can be real traffic-stoppers – like a campaign we ran recently for World Duty Free at Heathrow and Birmingham Airport, where we offered free temporary Diwali tattoos to get people jetting in from India or jetting out into the mood for the festival of lights. We did a similar campaign at Heathrow in July for American Independence Day around July 4th. It was amazing how much of an ice-breaker a mechanic as seemingly simple as a temporary tattoo can be!

We’ve done similar campaigns around Father’s Day, where we got kids to colour in bookmarks and stuff like that – it’s simple, but so powerful.

Face to face interactions like these stop people, start conversations and drive sales. In store, no matter how amazing an activation may look, it is the brand ambassadors who will drive the activity, engaging with customers from the start and ultimately sealing the deal.

Once passengers walk into the airport retail environment, brand ambassadors can recognise and even celebrate their cultural backgrounds and their unique qualities and interests in ways that digital elements can’t always reach.

When customers do venture in-store, they will be looking to enhance their experience in a way that simply can’t be delivered on line.

Media can attract people and begin conversations; but it’s person-to-person contact that turns a conversation in to a relationship.

Recently, Blackjack has been working closely with specialist training company Penny Blake Associates, which has been helping us reinforce the personal elements of face-to-face sales and marketing. What we’ve learned from that is the importance of human to human interactions – and you just don’t get that when you’re sticking a tablet under someone’s nose and asking them to fill in their personal data.

It’s massively important that in the experiential and face-to-face marketing sectors we recognise the importance of investing in our people and team members. We should be helping them to develop their levels of empathy and emotional intelligence so they can engage in individualised conversations that build real human connections. If this is achieved, often customers will seek out this salesperson on their next visit and truly a relationship has begun. Brand loyalty through a personal human connection is extraordinarily powerful and this mustn’t be underestimated.

Digital can be very impressive and hugely powerful; but if we allow digital to take over everything, and throw away the personal touch which human interaction brings to the party, then experiential marketing just becomes another channel parroting the same collective messages that mass advertising delivers. Stores will become Times Square-style wastelands, garishly lit by flickering, soul-less screens…

We need to ensure that we keep authentic person-to-person customer service alive, even as we deploy the latest digital tools to help drive efficiency.

Hamilton Sargent is Contentainment and WDFG account manager at Blackjack Promotions where his role includes servicing World Duty Free and Dufry across 17 airports in the UK. Having joined Blackjack in 2014, he is responsible for managing the Contentainment account with experience in digital and experiential marketing campaigns, retail theatre and bringing brands to life.