It’s 2015: do you know where your shoppers are? If you are a technology leader in retail, you know they are online on both desktop and mobile devices. You have probably already set up shop on the Internet and streamlined back-end processes and systems to take advantage of the cost efficiencies of online sales.
But many retail CIOs are asking themselves what’s next, and wondering if the brick-and-mortar experience is on its way out. The answer is an emphatic no. Shoppers want to be catered to whether they are online or in stores. In turn, innovative retailers are blending virtual and physical shopping worlds to create “mashops” that are revitalizing the in-store experience while continuing to use back-end technology to maximize efficiency.
Consider Cisco StyleMe, a concept demonstrated at the National Retail Federation that gives customers a fun and interactive way to “try on” digitally rendered clothing and accessories virtually. StyleMe consists of a life-sized mirror that overlays the customer’s image with pictures of clothing they select using gesture- and touch-based interfaces.
“Retailers have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the in-person shopping experience by using technology to delight customers,” says Doug Stephens, Founder and President of Retail Prophet and one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists. “They can use technology to realize new experiences within the store that make shopping more fun and fulfilling.”
According to Stephens, all retailers have an opportunity to re-imagine their brick-and-mortar stores—and their brands—to make the most of all their sales channels. In doing so, the store becomes a valuable form of media; one that can deliver something websites alone can’t—tactile, sensory-rich, interpersonal experiences.
“In-person experiences, enlivened with new technologies and connectivity, represent a more tenable competitive advantage than products,” Stephens says. “Virtual and physical experiences combined can be extremely powerful and galvanizing in driving loyalty and sales.”
Many retailers are seeking ways to satisfy rapidly evolving consumer expectations and desires. People like to read reviews, and they want to know what their friends think about products and brands. If shoppers don’t have the information they need while in the store, they often use their mobile devices to get the information from the web instead.
That’s why many retail leaders are adding the Internet and social connectivity to stores through the mobile cloud. This option gives shoppers the details they want, such as product and pricing comparisons and social validation—right on the spot.
Location-based services (LBS) are an additional avenue for retail differentiation and brand building. According to a recent study by analyst firm IDC, 70 percent of retailers view LBS as a way to get closer to customers. A retailer might use LBS to push a relevant promotional offer to a customer who is spending an extended amount of time in one department or send a welcome message to a repeat shopper upon entering a store. 1
Stephens says retail CIOs need to create an experience that makes in-person buying more entertaining and as equally informed as buying online. Price is only one criterion for deciding where to buy. Consumers want to be delighted and surprised. The experience of buying has become just as important as the price of the product that is ultimately purchased.
Personalizing the In-Store Experience
The majority of large retailers have invested heavily in technological advances over the past two decades. Most of the improvements have been focused on the back end, boosting the efficiency of inventory, point-of-sale, accounting, and staffing operations.
But several forerunners are thinking beyond efficiencies, products, pricing, and promotions. A prominent sports outlet, for example, is employing media-rich treadmill stations so shoppers can test bicycles and running shoes prior to purchase, with personalized analytics that help inform their decision. A large home improvement chain has created augmented reality spaces that enable consumers to design—and then take a virtual tour of—new kitchens and bathrooms.
Stephens’ advice for retailers is simple: customers need connections to information before, during, and after the shopping experience. They don’t want to wait in line to pay, and they expect exceptional service. Brands need to clearly define their personalities and train store associates accordingly.
Customers expect an inviting, engaging store environment that is focused more on experiences than products. Use technology to animate those experiences and delight consumers. And most importantly, think differently.
“The store can be an experiential brand portal,” says Stephens. “Technology can help glue together physical and virtual experiences to reinforce the culture and ethos of the brand.”
The blend between physical and virtual worlds is occurring in other industries, too. In hospitality, hotels are providing personalized remote assistance, directions, and access to recreation and services that enhance the guest’s stay. Large public venues are allowing sports fans to share game photos over social media through free access to the mobile cloud.
As the lines fade among channels, visionary technology leaders who seize the opportunity will lead their companies to success. Who knows? They may even transform entire industries in their efforts to provide richer, more rewarding customer experiences.
1 Location-Based Services: An Important Building Block to Enhance the Customer Experience