The in-store shopping experience has gone into the changing room and emerged with a whole new wardrobe. Technologies such as AI, digital signage, smart mirrors, mobile apps, robotic assistants and mobile POS devices are becoming the new items of a highly responsive and personalized in-store customer experience. Brick and mortar stores are staying relevant by meeting customers on their own terms and using smart technology that drive sales and increase in-store efficiency.
“This could be the year when many of the technologies that have been in startup mode will begin to become reality,” says Matthew Shaw, CEO of the National Retail Federation in a report from Intel. “AI and virtual reality might not be taking over completely, but they are starting to emerge. And we are at the point where consumer expectations are rising and influencing how retailers who want to stay on top must interact with their customers.”
According to the Intel report, the golden key to more sales is for solution providers to help retailers bring together different IoT technologies and systems to improve efficiency and deliver a modern, personalized experience for customers. Intel predicts that by 2018, retailers and solution providers engaged in IoT partnerships with major manufacturers “will take significant market share from competitors.”
Shailesh Chaudhry, director of business strategy for retail at Intel, cites AI as one of the technologies that is going to be a foundational technology for the future of retail. “Knowing what customers are interested in, getting those products in front of them at the right time and removing all friction from the sale requires a powerful mix of connected devices and analytics software,” he says.
“We see lots of islands of technology,” says Chaudhry, including beacons, RFID, sensors, cameras and POS systems. “They’re all generating data, but today they all exist in silos.”
IoT technology and advanced analytics allow retailers to gather the important stats on shoppers. For instance, RFID and video data can be a useful combo. With RFID alone, stores get insights about products, such as their location, where they have been moved or if they’re in the wrong place on the shelf. By combining RFID data with video, stores can see if customers are picking up a particular product—which typically means they are considering it for purchase.
“If (the store) can share that insight with a sales associate, then when they approach a customer, they will be able to make a recommendation about a product that is consistent with their style and preference,” notes Chaudhry.
A Virtual Sales Assist
Finding the right combination of in-store technology can change the game, especially with new product rollouts. Jose Avalos, vice president of visual retail at Intel, points out the importance of digital signage in helping a customer find information in a grocery store, a place where an alarmingly high 90 percent of new products fail. “What if we integrate digital signage directly into the shelves, so a consumer can come in, learn about a new product, understand what the benefits are and see what recipes they can create?”
Digital assistants armed with useful information are showing up in many forms, including digital kiosks as well as robots with on-board touchscreens to help consumers find and select products. One example is Sanbot, a Chinese company that manufacturers a cloud-enabled service robot and a Multi-Service Platform System (MPS) for retail. With MPS, retail businesses can customize and create tasks for each Sanbot robot on a PC, tablet or smartphone and distribute them to a fleet of Sanbots over the cloud. The robot includes a voice interaction system and can display information on its high-definition tablet or via sophisticated laser projection. It can offer shoppers special deals and provide information about the store, including inventory location. The company cites an example in a bookstore, where Sanbot greets customers and helps them locate the book of their choice and also recommends related books coming out soon.
Visualizing with AR
Another emerging digital assist technology is augmented reality, which can give sales staff a new level of data intelligence. A sales associate, for example, could wear a pair of glasses that gives them a continuous stream of real-time, relevant information without ever having to look at a device.
AR makeup mirrors from Japan’s skin care manufacturer Shiseido are already in use at high-end cosmetic counters. These “magic mirrors” help women find the right shade of makeup—and see how it looks—before they commit to a purchase. The store associate uses the AR makeup mirror to take an image of a shopper’s face, so the customer can see exactly what each hue will look like once applied. This process takes much less time than a sales associate who has to reapply dozens of individual makeup test colors.
Furniture store IKEA also has an augmented reality catalog that enables shoppers to visualize how certain pieces of furniture could look inside their home. The app measures the size of the products against the surrounding room and fixtures to offer a true-to-life size, whenever possible.
Gartner predicts that by 2023, 25 percent of customer service and support operations will integrate virtual assistant technologies of some variety, including AR or robotics. This estimate is up from less than 2 percent last year.
“There is so much information that sales associates have to learn about—products, features, and customers—that it’s not humanly possible for them to remember all of that, no matter how much training they have,” says Chaudhry. He notes that with the right data and IoT tools, the average hourly store employee can become a retailer’s well-informed sales associate, which helps customers and owners alike.
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