There’s no denying that digital emerged as the “lockdown hero”. How would we have gotten through three months of being confined to our homes without our weekly Zoom business meeting to stay connected with colleagues, the daily dose of celebrity couples performing skits on TikTok or Joe Wicks’ morning P.E class on YouTube? It just wouldn’t have been the same…

But as we ease back into the world of business and retail stores are opening their doors once again, I’m not so sure that digital is the unsung hero that we’re all being promised is the only way to get through this next period of uncertainty.

Indeed, in the travel retail space, we’re hearing that digital is now more important than ever. I disagree. Digital has always been important – we just haven’t got it right yet. The race is definitely on to find the sweet spot between getting digital right and bringing it to the in-store environment. That’s always been the goal – the difference is that it’s all just accelerated now. 

Knowing what we know about the different customer profiles who pass through the shop floor in duty free, of course there are some who prefer not to have too much interaction with people or products and would welcome the opportunity to see and order via an iPad and have it delivered straight to their home. And then you have the regulars, the loyal customers who like what they like and know exactly what they want to buy. And then there are those who value human interactions and want to know and learn more about the products they are considering purchasing.

Digital can work for lots of products. However, there are a whole host of other products that are often more of an impulse buy. This is particularly true for liquor. Shoppers might not know anything about this product, they might never have heard of it, they might not have even thought they were looking to buy such a product. But then they have that unique experience of talking to a knowledgeable Brand Ambassador, hearing the story of the brand, maybe even getting to sample it and then deciding to purchase. 

Touching, smelling, tasting… that kind of in-store brand experience just can’t be achieved anywhere else. And while it might be some time before sampling or experiential activities can be restarted, this is an opportunity for brands and retailers to look at how ‘experiencing’ will look for retail on the whole. 

And while I salute the travel retail industry for being on the ball in rolling out some of the latest digital tech, it’s still important to remember that it shouldn’t be purely ‘tech for tech’s sake’. It can’t just be a tick box exercise or an add-on to an existing promotion, it needs to be a communicator that uses data to engage customers with relevant content in a way that enriches and improves the customer experience. 

Real people, from Brand Ambassadors to retail staff, add nuance, context and interpretation to what tech can provide. This is why the human interaction in retail will remain a vital piece of the puzzle. They can understand the subtleties of human emotion and interaction, whereas no matter how sophisticated or intelligent the technology, it can only play a supporting role in retail, one that will enhance but not replace the human interactions that many offline shoppers crave. 

Digital might have been the hero of lockdown while we were all stuck at home, but when it comes to getting people back in-store with confidence, no amount of technology can replicate the human touch.

By Leanne Nutter, Head of Travel Retail, Blackjack

Originally published Moodie Davitt Report | July 2020