By Mike Bishop, MD, Rakuten.co.uk

In its earliest form, shopping involved bartering between two people to reach an equitable exchange. Commerce today has evolved to be far more structured, but that doesn't mean it has to be soulless. Retailers in this constantly connected world are privy to a wealth of priceless information on consumers browsing and buying behaviour that can make the experience feel much more personal.

This powerful dataset and advances in marketing and customer service technology means that many of our retail interactions can be automated, but treating customers as pure numbers is a slippery slope. In our rush to streamline processes, it’s important to keep the essence of the retail exchange as human as possible.

Retailers must strike a balance between operational efficiency, which will deliver the speedy service customers love and expect, with the human interaction which fosters consumer loyalty. There are a number of touch points where that human touch is essential in retail:

Empathy in customer service

Now more than ever before, shopping is a public two-way conversation between the customer and retailer. If a product or service fails to meet a shoppers expectations, their grievances can be publically posted to personal social networks and brand pages. In this situation being greeted by a faceless corporation will do little to assuage frustration. We have all been on the receiving end of an automated messaging service at some point and it can be frustrating at best. When a shopper is disappointed, they want to speak to a real person, receive empathy for their position and see a swift resolution. As it stands, automated computer systems currently lack the social sophistication to address all but the most basic shopper concerns.

Personal histories build trust

There is no question that shoppers want quality products, which are well made and are offered at the right price. However there are intangibles for which many shoppers will pay a premium. Consumers like to be part of a story too, they value and trust human endeavour. Just look at the legions of Apple fans that bought into more than just a handset with the iPhone. Shoppers were captivated by Steve Jobs' vision and quest for perfection. When seeking long term fans, who will keep coming back to your business it's important to remember that heart rules over the head and that true passion is contagious. Retailers should not underestimate the power of the people behind a business.

Good advice is priceless

The bigger the price tag the more likely a shopper is to seek reassurance that this is the right purchase for their needs. The same rules apply online too and retailers should see it as their mission to be more than just a point of sale. Just because your store is virtual, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer shoppers assistance. The rules that govern good customer service in the physical world still apply online; shoppers don’t want to be pestered by shop assistants when they are browsing, but they do want to be able to seek advice out and be alerted to special deals. Whether you are pointing them in the direction of a favourable independent review or offering them advice on complementary items, there are countless opportunities to make the shopping experience more than just a transactional process.

This is not a game of hide and seek

Technological advances do so much to support our businesses, but it’s essential that retailers don’t hide behind their webpages. Shopkeepers large and small, online or offline should do their best to keep the soul in shop keeping. At Rakuten we've seen some of our most successful merchants flourish by cultivating a two-way dialogue with shoppers.
Ultimately this dialogue serves to enrich the shopping experience and help keep it personal. Price will always be a factor, but a fan or regular shopper that buys into more than just product is worth going the extra mile for.