In the midst of its early design, the Theatro employee communication system sounded promising: a smartphone application that would enable instant one-on-one chat between associates in a store.
But when it came time to pilot the app, the store manager on site was less than enthusiastic. She loved the software. She just didn’t like the experience.
“She held out both of her hands to me, palms up,” says Chris Todd, Theatro president and CEO. “She said, ‘I have two hands. But with a smartphone, I only have one. My people have things to do. And if I put a phone in their hands they can do less. … This may be solving one problem, but it’s creating another one.’”
Make that at least one additional problem created by a smartphone — customers also want to be able to look associates in the eye, the manager told him, rather than seeing them staring at screens. In addition, with associate eyes always looking down, opportunities for customer theft could rise.
“It was an interesting moment, all right,” Todd says. So the Dallas-based company came up with an innovative idea: Get rid of the screen all together, and turn Theatro into a wearable, voice-controlled, heads-up and hands-free solution.
It took about three years to perfect, he says, but the positive response has been strong and swift.
In January 2016, when Theatro attended Retail’s BIG Show, the company was in trials with three retailers, with 10 stores deployed and 1,000 users.
At the start of this year, however, Theatro had four nationwide deployments underway, with 200 stores deployed and 20,000 users. Retail customers and pilots include The Container Store, Cabela’s, Fry’s Electronics and Neiman Marcus Last Call. The company also has pilots underway with seven of the 15 largest retail chains in the United States.
“It’s been a really exciting year,” Todd says.
Kristi Allison, a vice president at Neiman Marcus Last Call, can say the same.
Last Call tested the solution at two stores for about 60 days, and as of January was in the process of expanding to 28 stores within the next couple of months. Allison’s interest originally was piqued by Theatro’s communication capabilities. But along the way, she says, the tiny 1.5-ounce devices have proven to be much more.
Theatro allows each wearer to connect simply by tapping the device, saying “hello” followed by the intended target’s name, and be instantly in touch. Allison notes this is helpful when, for example, someone in a fitting room needs a different size, and the associate there can easily find another associate on the floor to bring it.
Theatro also allows managers like Allison to leave important messages, notes of recognition and training information in individual mailboxes on the device. The Theatro system is connected to the store’s internal system, enabling associates to perform inventory lookup or price checks with a simple voice command.
“That way, the associate never has to leave the customer,” Todd says.
“We are spending so much less time looking for stuff and communicating with each other, and a lot more time face-to-face with the customer.”
— Kristi Allison, Neiman Marcus Last Call
That has meant tremendous gains from a customer service and sales perspective.
“We are spending so much less time looking for stuff and communicating with each other,” Allison says, “and a lot more time face-to-face with the customer.”
On average, Theatro customers have seen a 12 percent savings in time thanks to the improved communications. The system has improved associate response times by 77 percent, and a survey showed that 91 percent of associates agree that Theatro helps them serve customers better; 53 percent strongly agree.
The response from Allison’s associates has been “fabulous,” she says.
“The adoption of this has far exceeded my expectations. There has been absolutely no pushback from the associates. They very quickly see the wins of this, like when they don’t have to chase a manager down for approval or authorization. And the managers love it, because they don’t have to chase the associates to communicate with them.”
Theatro’s benefits might seem more obvious for larger or big-box stores, but Todd says the solution also is ideal for retailers with numerous small locations. (Theatro is a software-as-a-service solution, on a per-employee subscription format.)
“The problem is different but similar,” he says. “The challenge is still, ‘How do I find and communicate with the employees?’”
For multiple locations, a special app for managers does the trick. Running on iPhone or Android, it allows the manager to pull up any store and not only communicate instantly with any employee, but also “see” where each of those employees are in real time.
“That manager can know who’s at the register and who’s in the stock room, and can speak directly into an employee’s ear bud,” Todd says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re down the street or across the country.” That allows managers to handle more stores.
Allison says there have been advantages to working with Theatro in the company’s early days, as Last Call has been able to take part in the solution’s development.
But the innovations, according to Todd, are far from over. Theatro — named for the idea that retail associates are like cast members in a theatrical production, and without communication, that production would be a disaster — has been drawing interest from hotels, factories, airports, stadiums and distribution centers. Each element spurs new possibility.
What if, for example, Theatro allowed users to tap into a recommendation engine that would make an alternative suggestion if a desired item was unavailable?
What if Theatro was able to work in a similar manner as beacon technology, recognizing frequent shoppers or reward program members, and helped the closest associate recognize them and make appropriate suggestions?
What if that associate also knew what the customer had previously been searching for on the retailer’s website?
“That’s about contextually personalizing the experience,” Todd says — but learning how to do it in a non-creepy way.
Faster responses, higher sales
Because associates can ask the system, “Where is … ?” and then name another employee, Theatro also had a cheeky response for those who would say their own names: “If you don’t know where you are, how do I know where you are?”Theatro also has been having some fun, hiding “Easter eggs” to surprise and delight associates. There was, for example, a period of time when Tommy Tutone’s early ‘80s song played for those listing a SKU number that included “8675309.”
Joking aside, at this point, the biggest challenge for a retailer interested in employing Theatro is ensuring store Wi-Fi is up to par. Allison says that involved some physical store surveys and configurations for the right network access and security parameters.
But once everything was hooked up, she says, the devices themselves were easy to use, and the training was simple.
“The key that always comes through is the ability to enable the associates,” Todd says. “If you can reduce response times to customer requests, you’re going to see conversion going up. The quicker you can get an answer for a customer, the happier they will be.”
Fiona Soltes, a freelancer based near Nashville, Tenn., loves a good bargain almost as much as she loves a good story.