When we talk about high-tech shopping vs. “low-tech” shopping, most of us probably think that the browsing and shopping we do online, via computers or mobile devices, is what makes shopping high tech, while traveling to brick-and-mortar stores is decidedly low tech.
But those preconceived notions are going the way of Woolworth, Kresge, Gimbel and other once-mighty U.S. retail legends.
An Associated Press article, “Here come ‘smart stores’ with robots, interactive shelves,” previewing the annual Consumer Electronics Show gadget-fest which kicks off in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, described some of the cutting-edge technologies retailers are piloting in an effort to bring customers into physical stores. Among the innovations highlighted:
- Smart shelves: The Kroger grocery chain is planning to expand its smart shelves capability in even more customer-specific ways. For instance, today a Kroger’s in Ohio has shelves that show digitized prices and product information. The next step is to link that information to individual consumers. For shoppers who prefer gluten-free products, “the price tags could light up in the aisle where all the gluten-free options are. The company says this will all be done with the customer’s permission.”
- Robots: Home improvement retailer Lowe’s is experimenting with robots in a San Jose, Calif., store before rolling them out to more stores in the state this year. “Besides scanning shelves for inventory, the robots can guide customers to specific products in both English and Spanish.”
- Interactive mirrors: High-end clothing retailers are testing so-called “magic mirrors” to see if the interactive capabilities resonate with customers. Dallas-based retailer Neiman Marcus “has installed these outside fitting rooms at 20 stores to offer shoppers a 360-degree view of what an outfit looks like. Shoppers can make side-by-side comparisons without having to try them all on. They can also share video with friends for feedback.”
- Virtual and augmented reality: Home Depot is trialing a home-decorating app that “lets customers upload a picture of the room on their phone and thumb through thousands of paint and stain colors until they arrive at one that’s right.”
Another big push is being made in self-checkout capabilities. While Walmart scrapped its Scan & Go app two years ago after it failed to catch on with customers, other retailers are still at it. Amazon announced Amazon Go, a checkout-less grocery store concept, a few weeks ago. And Panasonic has introduced an “unstaffed bagging system” at a Japanese convenience store where shoppers “place a ‘smart’ basket with their items on a machine at checkout. The system calculates the bill and automatically bags the items.”
Retailers are working feverishly to develop innovative ways – such as these high-tech shopping solutions – to provide exceptional service throughout the customer journey. Their goal is to give shoppers compelling reasons to come into stores, just like Woolworth, Kresge and Gimbel did in the old days.
Online retailers are a huge force in retail. Early doom-sayers predicted that online retailers would decimate brick-and-mortar stores. Brick-and-mortar clothing stores however hold one gimmick online retailers can’t. They offer a high sensory connection with the product.
Online virtual dressing rooms give customers a similar ability to visualize the product they might find in a store. So how can on-the-ground retail stores protect that key component of the shopping experience? Better in-store dressing room technology, like augmented reality or smartphone integration, enhances retail customer experience off the web and it could bolster sales.
In-store technology like smartphone integration makes customers’ lives easier. A&G Labs have developed a fitting room concept called MVSE which combines online and in store shopping, CassandraDaily.com reported. “MVSE brings some of young consumers’ favorite online shopping features— namely, reviews, recommendations, shopping history, social sharing, and discounts—into the dressing room,” the article said. Cassandra reported the system would include “a touchscreen in the fitting room, a smartphone in the hands of customers, and a tablet in the hands of sales clerk.” The system would “help retailers upsell existing customers and win over new ones through social sharing.”
Mobile is quickly becoming the most important reference tool for everything we do. A study by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers found the average mobile user checks their phone nearly 150 times per day. That’s almost ten times every waking hour! In this day and age, if it’s not on my mobile, it doesn’t exist.
More interesting dressing room technology could simply make in-store retail shopping more fun. Retail stores that survive will be mainly about the experience of shopping, a Huffington Post article in 2014 said. Like many other companies, Ebay has purchased a startup designing holographic augmented reality software that “can be used in dressing rooms to instantly try on different colors of clothing or different styles… without physically trying them on,” the article says.
“Physical shopping will become a lot more fun because it’s going to have to be,” said retail expert Doug Stephens in the article.
Augmented reality tech could actually increase the conversion of prospective buyers into sales as well, Mashable recently suggested. In the article, Matt Szymczyk from AR dressing room company Zugara said that though brick-and-mortar AR is currently expensive, it’s an important link between the web and the world. “It provides a unique in-between phase for brick-and-mortar businesses,” Szymczyk said for the article.
The doom-sayers weren’t just off the mark, they were dead wrong. The internet won’t kill retail, but it will help it. Technology and the internet are simply being combined more and more with the in-store shopping experience to make it more fun, and more profitable.