The high street is facing a slump in sales, but can digital technologies reinvent the retail shopping experience?
E-commerce has transformed retail over the last 15 years, but the widely held presumption that online purchasing would spell the demise of bricks-and-mortar shopping has now been supplanted by a more nuanced vision of our shopping future. Recent developments in advanced interactive technology have enabled shrewd retailers to mine the idea that online/offline shopping is not an either/or proposition, and that there is a chance to engage customers in new ways on the physical shopfloor.
Indeed, rather than diminishing the traditional shopping experience, techniques that have been the preserve of the online shop are to some extent now informing the new in-store retail technology.
The reimagining of bricks and mortar could well be said to draw inspiration from movie-makers such as Steven Spielberg, whose futuristic film 'Minority Report', made a decade ago, integrated technology into retail and advertising displays through personalised messages delivered to individuals based on a scan of their eye. Although that level of sophistication is a way off yet, some retailers and their technology partners are starting to deploy innovations that are changing shoppers' behaviour and expectations, and using technology to personalise the shopping experience.
The rise of the so-called virtual store is upon us, interacting with shoppers in real time using a fixed or wireless connection to smart tablets or via consumers' own handheld smart devices. The idea is that shoppers can interact with the brand using smart systems, for example capturing an image of themselves or producing an avatar enabling them to try on garments in real-time but in a virtual environment while in-store.
Retailing is seen as one of the indicators of economic wellbeing, and since 2008 retailers have borne the brunt of pinched consumer purchasing. As digital retailing evolves, however, retailers are seeking new opportunities to coax shoppers back. One of their strategies is based around what's generically described as an 'omni-retailing' model. As the name indicates, omni-retailing relates to how retailers can connect with their consumers across multiple traditional and non-traditional 'channels'. These include physical store purchases, e-commerce and social media, as well as through retailing enabled by smart devices like smartphones and tablet PCs.
By designing digitally-enhanced stores with applications that complement each other, the retailer can connect with target consumers by exposing them to key brands through these various channels.This pluralistic approach is important because some retailers believe that savvy consumers will actually buy more when presented with multiple channels, and not restrict their purchasing to either one or another; just because customers like making their purchases online does not mean they remain immune to making additional purchases via offline methods.
According to research firm IDC Retail Insights, multichannel shoppers spend, on average, 15-30 per cent more than shoppers who use only one channel, which provides compelling justification for the extra investment needed for the new retailing technology. The research estimates that omni-channel shoppers will spend 20 per cent more than multi-channel shoppers.
"Stores will not disappear, instead they will become a place for brand and consumer experience and new technologies," explains IDC Retail Insights research director Ivano Ortis. "Bringing online capabilities inside the store is a transformation in retail, it is bringing better opportunities and driving sales."
This is challenging for technology developers shops of all kinds are already packed with high-tech sales aids, ranging from digital signage, point-of-sale marketing displays, touchscreen self-service units, video displays, and computerised brand promotions.
Smart virtual retail technology needs lots of power, communications and support. It has to be integrated with complementary channels as flawlessly as possible shoppers are fickle and have notoriously limited attention spans. Technology that looks hard to use or is slow to react will be overlooked.
One further issue is that fact that the kinds'of'advanced technology being tried out'by big retailers often relies on the consumers' own devices to provide a 'platform' to run on. Augmented reality is an example of this, where shopping apps developed by a store run on shopper's own smartphones and produce a real-world environment.
In October 2011, department store chain Debenhams tested omni-retailing as it launched its first virtual pop-up store on smart devices at famous landmarks around the UK, including Trafalgar Square in London (see p48), Albert Square in Manchester, and George Square in Glasgow.
The augmented reality app designed by American company GoldRun aims to transform traditional digital media into brand-consumer engagements which operate on the iPhone, iPad and Android smartphones and tablets. The device scans the scene to find the store's selected garments. Once located they can virtually try them on and upload picture of themselves, share on social networking sites, and order the item.
"It is important to keep exceeding customer expectations," says Debenhams' mobile commerce manager Sarah Baillie. "Mobile device adoption is bringing new > <'technologies to the market, such as location-based software, visual and voice recognition, augmented reality and near-field communications [applications] keep consumers excited about brands."
Sporting brand Adidas has integrated omni-retailing to generate its own shopping experience. Partnered with Intel, the Adidas virtual footwear wall takes real product displays, where products are showcased on shelves, and presents them through a 'virtual wall' powered by Intel Core i7 processors, it delivers a visually smart performance, which gives the shopper the opportunity to view 8,000 products in precise detail.
As shoppers approach the wall it reacts to their movements and suggests a range of products using Intel's anonymous video analytics - Intel AIMSuite. This gathers demographic information about shoppers and collects data on their shopping behaviour while interacting with the wall, this is done anonymously and the shopper's identity is not captured.
"It is not about Internet retailing versus in-store retailing. It is about providing shoppers with all the information to help them make a purchase," says marketing manager for retail at Intel Shailesh Chaudhry. "We personalise the shopper experience by making targeted and relevant product recommendations based on shoppers' demographic information."
The Adidas display presents a range of interactive menus including a technology menu, which enables the user to understand the products and benefits; a history menu, which reveals the background of the shoe and how it is made; or the user can select the buzz option where they can see what others are saying about the product. Shoppers can use the touchscreen and real-time 3D rendered products to select shoes on a virtual shelf, look at the product from any angle, rotate it, zoom in on it, and retrieve further product detail.
The built-in remote manageability is designed to keep downtime and onsite visits to a minimum, enabling remote monitoring, diagnosis and repair of solution even if it is shut down or the operating system, Microsoft Windows, is unresponsive.
At a visceral level virtual retail aims to captivate the shoppers' interests by transforming products digitally into desirable objects, and by enabling shoppers to engage with the entire process.
Networking giant Cisco Systems and department store John Lewis have launched StyleMe, a virtual fashion mirror enabling shoppers to try on clothes without physically taking any off. Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), artificial intelligence company C-instore, technology company Aitech and digital communications company The Team, developed the 1.8m by 1m 'mirror'. It has a built-in PrimeSense camera situated on the side of the unit and over 1m from the ground which captures shoppers' body dimensions and spatial position.
Senior director Lisa Fretwell explains that during the testing period PrimeSense camera was the most reliable and cost-effective depth and visual integrated camera on the market. The unit is supported by Cisco Cius tablet, which requests shoppers to enter personal details and enables the store to manage the 'mirror'.
StyleMe is a network-based solution and part of Cisco's digital road map. To operate, StyleMe requires power as well as fixed and wireless Internet connections. From this, it collates and analyses trends by colour, style, brand and price using the retailers garment database.
In the 2012 pilot, Fretwell explains, Cisco is analysing the most tried-on brand, the top ten garments, the most tried-on garment type and the most tried-on recommendations. Cisco will determine if StyleMe is successful through customer feedback, usage, associated sales in-store, and online and staff feedback.
The interactive mirror presents a broad collection of 500 womenswear garments and accessories, which are then superimposed over the shoppers' bodily image and can be uploaded onto social networking sites.
Fretwell says"The age range peaks on both ends, the mirror connects to social networking sites, ideal for the young generation. However, during the pilot period we saw elderly shoppers taking to StyleMeit helps those who can't spend a long time in the changing room or walking around the store."
Behind the physical exterior, the core elements of Cisco StyleMe is made of augmented reality capabilities, an artificial intelligence engine that combines image and video analytics and gesture recognition software and runs on the Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems.
The system does not need to aim at exact reality in order to succeed, Fretwell adds"The PrimeSense cameras capture an image, but it is important to stress StyleMe does not capture a consumer's exact size. Rather, it is there for the consumer to see what products match and how it may look on the shopper."
The challenge with physical retail is that online retail is growing, which means flat in-store growth hence why retailers need to adopt virtual in store experiences, Fretwell explains. "Online methods experienced in store means consumers are in touch with the brand more and are expected to buy more, it changes consumers shopping behaviours."
Simon Russell, director retail operations development at John Lewis, says"These developments do not mean retailers have reached the limit of Internet retailing, it simply reflects the growing use of technology to enhance the customer shopping experience in-store and what shoppers will see in the future."
The mirror piloted for six weeks during April and May 2012 in John Lewis's flagship Oxford Street store. If successful, Cisco plans to collaborate further and develop the features. *