Blur the Bricks: The Future of Retail

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To picture the next generation of retail, imagine the confluence of digital profiles; beacon technologies that guide customers through stores; smart sales floors with product and inventory information on demand; and loyalty platforms that improve the experience of shoppers — and what retailers know about each.

Each of those trends, along with a 10-point “Do This Now” manifesto for retailers, is spelled out in the 2015 Future of Retail report from PSFK. But don’t think of it as the far future.

The report describes a world where several startups from Chicago and elsewhere already have staked out a space, and where many larger companies are actively shifting their attentions.

To be sure, the trick is in combining all of these trends. Alone, they dazzle; together, they drive revenue and efficiencies.

But if the central hurdle is — as PSFK poses — the challenge of imagining the world as it ought to be, have a look at how state-of-the-art retail looks now.

Digital

Combine online shopper profiles with in-store recognition technology. Chicago’s Iris Mobile already is implementing this, and it can be used to guide shoppers from the store entrance to an efficient and delightful shopping experience. Upgrade your inventory with a “buy” button that works online and in the store.

Provide digital concierge service, whether that means delivering or placing orders ahead of time. We Deliver, a Chicago startup, will pick up and deliver any retailers’ stuff to any customer they wish. Meanwhile, Old Town’s Plum Market offers customers a concierge to help with call-ahead orders or with delivery requests.

Round out the digital suite with product reviews and information, price comparisons, and information on inventory on hand.

Technology

The in-store part of the equation is anchored with beacon technology that tell customers with smartphones or some other wearable technology where they are and where to go next. When used in combination with a user profile, you can imagine use cases where you increase customer basket size, make visits more frictionless, or guide customers on a curated stroll through the store, profile and mood depending.

Don’t stop there. For in-store services, consider an app that allows customers to book an appointment ahead of time, increasing resource utilization for the store and convenience for the customer. That’s what Chicago’s Occasion has set out to do. Build the rest of the shopping experience around that, and you’ve customized the day of shopping for a customer.

And why stop there? Once customers are linked to digital profiles, observe their behavior in the store. In-store analytics is a rapidly advancing field. Companies like Retail Next are combining data from a range of internal, external and surprising sources — from video cameras to WiFi and Bluetooth devices to weather and payment data — and producing outputs that include dashboards, predictive analytics and even heat maps.

This Harvard Business Review article shows the potential for that kind of store-level aggregate customer data. Chicago’s InContext Solutions helps predict how to stay ahead of things, too: Its 3D models of in-store displays track eye movements and predict sales, allowing store owners to optimize display layouts.

Sales Floor

The sales floor of the future is less for touch-points with inventory than it is for touch-points with customers that make it easier for them to buy things. That includes making it easier to want things, and easier to purchase them. And that’s a digitally enabled prospect.

Part of that includes linking physical products in the store to digital elements mentioned earlier: Online product recommendations, influencer reviews, and so on. Add to that a chance to give shoppers advice on how and where to use the product in a way that is practical, aspirational, or both. Another option is to go the route that Vizera has gone, allowing augmented reality to digitally enhance how a basic product a customer sees in a showroom to reflect the customized options they prefer.

The opportunities here are for displays that build a social connection for customers with the themes that run though your products. Think of the immersive shopping experience at Cabela’s, which worked with Lombard-based The Carlson Group to create an indoor “Disneyland” for outdoor enthusiasts. (Meanwhile, Barclays Center is teaming up with Dreamworks to enhance the shopping experience. H/T to my Slalom colleague Kim Taylor who shared that with me.)

The next opportunity is in the dressing room, where a touchscreen can suggest accessories to go with items in the room (either from that store, or a sister store elsewhere in a mall), provide information about available inventory on hand (or, if you’re out of the item, to route the customer to at another shop in the mall). Or fetch a personal stylist — even self-checkout lines in grocery stores have human attendants.

Loyalty

Matching a digital profile to a customer online or in-person at a store allows a rich opportunity for driving customer loyalty.

Chicago’s Belly is doing this for 7-Eleven, Chick-Fil-A, and thousands of other stores in the US and Canada. Tapping the Belly app to a point-of-sale device allows the store to offer tailored incentives to buyers. It also lets them collect more personalized information about each buyer’s individual habits. (Presumably, Belly also is learning a lot about aggregate shopper behavior.)

This needn’t be tied to point-of-sale, however. The market is moving as quickly as it can to circumventing the checkout process altogether. Just as soon as it can figure out security around card-not-present payment transactions. (Chicago’s Rippleshot is digging around in that, too.)

Taken together, the options that are currently available fall on a spectrum from common, non-custom items you’d feel comfortable buying online to experience goods you’d only buy in a retail setting — but might gather information or consider options for online. The newcomer to this space is the concierge option, which has allowed a new market of online delivery companies to emerge — and opened up a new area for some retailers to deepen their relationship with customers.

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Just as in other digitizing industries, one base assumption is that you’re thinking about how you want to grow up as a digital organization. In the past, I’ve written about how MIT and others have studied and written about how to do that. Taking that first step also allows you to innovate your business model, something else I’ve written about in the past, still write about, and do professionally.

The people who are really good at it — such as The Trunk Club, which started in the digital era and was purchased by Nordstrom — are present online, via a personal concierge who ships trunks picked by you or for you, or in person. For instance, at Trunk Club, the male experience of shopping is enhanced in their showroom store by leather sofas, a personal stylist, and free beer or scotch. I consider my stylist a friend; she knows my wife, who I wear, and what I drink.

I’m as penny-pinching as they come, but it’s a hard combination to resist.

In the retail environment of the future, there’s no reason not to know all your customers that well.

— James Janega
@JamesJanega

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