Some context: I designed an app a little while back that connect you with points of interest around the city, and you could follow different paths based on your location and interests. Although there’s a lot of talk about how much technology disconnects us from the world around us, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of technology to connect us with our surroundings. While working at Saks Fifth Avenue I did some thinking about how this can be applied to retail and there are so many exciting opportunities in this space (in an industry that really could use the help).
It’s no secret that retail companies are having their challenges at the moment. There are literally thousands of store closings planned for the near future across the United States, while dystopian images of half-darkened or fully abandoned malls haunt our collective psyche.
Sometimes it takes going through the hardest times to really learn and grow. It takes some soul-searching, and getting to the heart of what stores are good for, and delivering that value for customers in a new way. And fortunately, there are some really exciting new technologies that companies are using to leverage the power of the retail experience.
So what are stores good for — instant gratification of walking out with products in your hands, or the conversation with helpful store associates? Or in the case of one Saks Fifth Avenue customer I spoke to, a blissful and luxurious suspension of reality while exploring the store on a lunch break. At risk of over-simplifying, you might say that it’s the connection with people and a sense of place that differentiates physical stores from the e-commerce experience.
There are a few different technologies that have potential to re-imagine the retail experience and connect physical and digital in a meaningful way.
NFC (Near-field communication) is how Apple/Android pay works. It’s when two electronic devices establish communication by bringing them within 4 cm of each other.
Beacons transmit data to and from other devices through Bluetooth. For example, when you enter a store you could get a push notification of something you recently viewed online with a discount code and the item’s location in the store. The store associate for that department could get notified at the same time and offer assistance through the app before or after the purchase.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags transmit information to an RFID reader (an NFC enabled device), and have traditionally been used in tracking inventory movements and delivering insights automatically.
What some companies are doing now
- The changing room mirrors at Rebecca Minkoff give customers the ability to view suggestions based on what they brought in, add or change items by summoning an associate, and of course order champagne. Similarly at Burberry, RFID tags are used to bring up information about each garment and a video of the item on the runway.
- In the dressing room at some of their retail outlets in China, Alibaba’s Fashion AI uses deep learning to access massive amount of data and make “smart” suggestions to customers based on what they’re trying on. These in-store technology advancements are not just for novelty, they have a lot of potential for a more seamless in-store experience and a boost in sales. Seriously though, trying on clothes sucks, so anything that these companies can do to improve the experience is welcome.
- Also with their new Hema stores and app, Alibaba is making a huge investment in the future of retail and bridging the physical and digital divide. Shoppers use the barcode scanner in the Hema app to research products and see similar recommendations in the store, as well as suggestions based on your purchase history. Then they have an easy checkout process with Alipay, which is linked to the customer’s account in the Hema app. There’s also an Instacart-like service where shopping can scurry around scanning and gathering your items for you for delivery within thirty minutes.
- In an attempt to make food shopping completely seamless, Amazon just opened their Seattle Amazon Go store to the public. Here customers can use their smartphone to check in to the store, pick up their items and leave the store without ever going through the checkout process. Amazon hasn’t shared details on the “Just Walk Out” technology, but it sounds like a mix of sensors and cameras from above, machine learning algorithms and image processing technology. Amazon has said that it’s some of the same techniques used in self-driving cars.
Other retail innovations worth mentioning include streamlining inventory and store systems (Reformation), super innovative product launch strategies (Nike), and creating engaging experiential destinations (Google).
What I’d love to see
Ok, so I tested Google Glass for a hot minute in 2014, and there was one app that got me really excited. Field Trip provided a contextual layer to what you’re experiencing in real life. Ask Google to “explore nearby” and it provides nearby attractions and restaurants along with details from categories like history, art, architecture and food. I was obsessed with the possibilities. Another Google initiative was Art Project, where art enthusiasts could experience high resolution tours of some museums and galleries using street view technology.
Applied to retail, this could become a personalized experience for wearables or devices, leveraging AR that connects you with points of interest in the store. It could be a handy visual tour guide letting you take advantage of all the store has to offer. Depending on your location or interests you could follow a new path to learn more about the products around you. Or delve deeper into the online catalog if what you need isn’t physically there. Could see this working as a pretty cool VR experience as well, but of course you wouldn’t need the physical store for that one.
New technologies that connect customers with the store associate, or that gives us a new, more informed and contextual experience of a place, will amplify the in-store experience and could bring new and returning customers through the doors again. Not only that, once automated systems are integrated into the store’s sales cycle, they can collect data to provide future data driven decisions and deliver more value to customers.
It’s about making people feel like the phone in our hand is connecting us in a meaningful way with the store experience, not keeping us separate.