Balancing high tech and high touch

Something remarkable has happened at my church since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic — and we see something similar happening at retail and in some interior design businesses.

Our church membership is nearing record numbers, with significant growth in the past couple of years. People come to the church for different reasons, but the vast majority of them, according to our director of congregational life, are seeking a sense of community. Our sanctuary is full on Sundays and our church calendar is packed with activities, from small group ministries to religious education classes to mahjong and meditation groups.

During the height of the pandemic, our church building was closed for more than a year, and we shifted to Zoom-only services and meetings. Even now, about a quarter of the people attending our Sunday services do so via Zoom and all meetings have a Zoom option.

These days, we crave both the high touch and the high tech.

We’re seeing those same desires shaping retail and impacting how interior designers market and service their clients, too.

High tech

Let’s look first at high tech. Artificial intelligence is making it easier for retailers to do everything from craft marketing messages to predict shopping patterns. Designers can use AI to screen clients and to create a starting place for projects, among other things. Through its wide range of uses, AI promises to speed processes and improve results — all without human interaction.

In a recent seminar on the future of retail, FS, a New York-based trend forecasting and consumer insights firm, talked about AI as “commerce co-pilot.”

Consumers are drawn to artificial intelligence tools that feel highly personalized, like apps that recommend products.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is probably, ‘How is AI going to affect the future of retail?’ …But its potential as a commerce co-pilot — from conversational interfaces to intelligent virtual agents — is what we felt important to highlight,” says Nivara Xaykao, FS director of culture and consumer insights.  

Chatbots like Amazon’s new generative, AI-powered Rufus (now rolling out to customers) promise to change the way that people research and browse products. And more than two-thirds of consumers say they’d be likely to use ChatGPT or another AI tool rather than traditional search engines, according to FS research.

If chatbots and other AI tools become the go-to source for product and service recommendations, how can brands and designers ensure they are part of the pool of possibilities to be recommended?

As significantly, “imagine if more people start using these massive AI platforms to shop? What’s going to happen to the individual brand or store experience?” Xaykao says.

Part of what’s driving the interest in AI-assisted shopping is a desire for personalized rewards and guidance.

“As AI features become standard to the shopping experience, those who can make the integration seamless and intuitive — centering the user rather than the tech — have an opportunity to stand out,” according to FS. For ease of use, Amazon’s Rufus, for instance, is embedded in the search bar of the app or website and allows both text and voice input.

Etsy’s Gift Mode is a good example of an AI-fueled service that feels curated and personalized. “If you need gift ideas for anybody — and we mean anybody — in your life, you’ve come to the right place. By answering a few simple questions, this fun gift finder will suggest the perfect presents based on the occasion, the person’s interests and more,” the service promises.

Furniture and accessories brands can use similar technology to help shoppers search for and coordinate pieces for their home. Designers can use it to help clients refine their own sense of style — an updated version of wading through Pinterest pins.

“The technology itself isn’t exactly the selling point. It’s what the consumer can gain from the technology that is the selling point,” Xaykao says.

High touch

As much as the tech sector may want us to run our entire lives via screens, human beings are highly social creatures. Even the most introverted among us need regular human interaction. (Think of my church sanctuary filled with people on Sunday mornings. All those folks had to drag themselves out of warm and cozy beds on a weekend morning, get dressed and drive some distance to be in community with others. That’s an effort.)

Multiuse spaces that combine retail, dining, entertainment and other gathering spots help meet people’s needs for connection.

For decades, storefronts, whether the local coffee shop or the big shopping mall, served as community-building spaces, much like churches.

See Also

Some observers, including U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, say that Americans are experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Even with the popularity of e-commerce and the demise of traditional shopping malls, reinvented brick-and-mortar retailers can help meet our need for connection.

“Retailers are in a unique role to connect consumers with emotional experiences and humanity in many ways that technology cannot,” says Jordan Lewis, senior strategist for culture and consumer insights at FS.

One key is to create multiuse spaces that combine shopping with social activities like dining or hanging out (think the malls of old but on a smaller, more curated scale.)

“Consumers are eager to make social connections, and retail’s role as a third space will increasingly rely on its ability to unite groups based on consumers’ common interests through a strong and specific core identity,” Lewis says.

Another key is highly educated, highly knowledgeable sales associates who can guide consumers through their choices. According to the firm’s research, more than half of shoppers say they would like to have conversations with sales associates to gain insightful product recommendations.

“One of the most classic reasons to go shopping is to spend time with important people in your life and to have that social connection with family and friends,” Lewis says. (I recently saw a post on a women’s networking Facebook group from a woman asking if any others would like to join her for occasional errand running and quick shopping trips to places like Costco. Doing drudgery with others makes it less painful, she reminded the group.)

High touch is an area where many interior designers excel, walking their clients through difficult decisions and helping them create the homes of their dreams. Tired of flat, one-dimensional relationships with people through social media, email and texting, people will continue to seek out more real-life connections, looking to designers to be consultants and confidants, as well as service providers.

Balancing act

Both high tech and high touch have their place, whether in churches, retail or design firms. But there’s a delicate tension between the two — a high wire act that we’re all having to gingerly navigate. Those who can’t do so may tumble; those who can do so will rise to the top.

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Subscribe Now to the FREE Design News Now newsletter for the latest in product, design and retail trends in the home furnishings industry. Delivered to your inbox weekly!

Scroll To Top