A newly opened surf and skate shop, Friction, is banking on technology to outsell its competitors. The store has outfitted its staff with iPads equipped with Apple's FaceTime, a video calling software application for supported mobile devices, to connect online shoppers with in-store reps.
"We honestly didn't feel comfortable competing directly with other online skate retailers who can offer similar products at similar price points, but with a much more robust automated ordering system in place," said Dekker Dreyer, managing director at Florida-based Friction. "It felt old, stale, and tacked-on."
Adopting the technology allowed Friction to avoid competing on the same turf as the more established players, Dreyer said.
"We could beat them on our home court with experienced sales reps that know our products and live the brand," he said. "When you dial into Friction you don't just get a customer service call center, you get guys who represent, in every way, what our products are about. We've found a way to expand the hip little indie shop feel into online retail."
The store, which opened last month in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., is providing online customers with an in-store experience that had been lost in the new shopping paradigm, said Hap Aziz, creative strategist for Teaching and Learning for SunGard Higher Education, who predicted that it's just a matter of time before mainstream retailers adopt it.
"There's no reason to choose between convenience and personal service; literally, consumers will be able to interact directly with the iPad2-equipped sales staff just as they would if they were in the store."
Are customers using it?
Adoption has been slow, but Dreyer expects the service to become more popular as customers learn how it works.
"We get several calls per week at this point. Some are just curious what it's like, others are seriously interested in buying," he said. "As people become comfortable with the technology I think this could become a standard."
Social media commentator Jeff Greenhouse agreed, saying that the type of online-offline convergence that Friction has embraced could bring the human element back into online shopping.
"That's something that has been lost in the rush to e-commerce," he said. "Phone conversations and web chats just can't replicate the experience of a real face-to-face interaction with a knowledgeable representative. I would expect to see a lot of other retailers follow Friction's lead and offer this type of hybrid shopping experience in the next 12-18 months."
Small businesses need to embrace technology
Friction's business model relies heavily on technology, and FaceTime is just part of its strategy. It uses social media and on each clothing rack recently installed QR codes that open custom mobile sites about product lines, videos and coupons.
"I'd been implementing social media and in-store/online connections for about a year at my other store before opening Friction," said Evan Rebadow, Friction partner and executive buyer, who said small businesses must understand how to harness technology in order to stay competitive with major and online retailers.
"To me this is the evolution of a concept where small boutique stores like ours can compete online by offering personal interaction," he said. "It's one thing to read about a surf board on a static website, it's something completely different to be able to dial us up on your iPhone from anywhere you have service and talk to us one-on-one about what kind of surf you're going to be riding it in and how it performs for your skill level."
The store also uses technology to solve problems for its customers, Dreyer said. For example, a family visiting the beach store on vacation may not have a lot of luggage room to purchase products.
"In the very near future we're going to offer our patrons the ability to buy items directly by scanning the QR codes," he said. "The orders ship right to their houses. By being smarter about the way we integrate technology we're able to make sales beyond the limit of a suitcase size. All small business owners need to think about the challenges their market faces and assess if there is software out there to meet those challenges; chances are they'll be surprised."
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Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.