BY DENISE DEVEAU
There was a time when e-commerce appeared to threaten the livelihood of bricks-and-mortar stores. But for many of today’s consumers, the in-store experience plays a critical role in their shopping decisions.
Digital technology has been integral in drawing shoppers to store locations—from self-checkout systems and kiosks to interactive services and even augmented reality.
A key driver of technology innovation is the fact that customers want self-control, says Robin Sahota, Managing Director, Retail for Accenture Canada. “Digital integration helps with that. It’s equally important for sales associates who can now use tablets and CRM to capture information, identify customer history and improve service.
“While some in-store digital technologies are not ubiquitous, the overall focus of their use is on one or all of three things: enhancing the customer experience, building customer engagement, and efficiency,” he adds.
“There are some obvious things, such as digital shelf labels. They increase efficiency and you can change prices in real time, as well as run regional, store-based or seasonal promotions.”
Another is in-store navigation. “I’m increasingly seeing degrees of digital interfaces engaging customers ranging from promotions and marketing, to product description and traceability of food products.”
One of the most prevalent areas in digital is the checkout experience, he adds. “We are seeing a range of self-checkout and cashless checkout capabilities out there. Several are starting to look at the Amazon GO checkout-free concept as inspiration.”
Click and collect will progress to tracking customer arrivals, he believes. “That’s the next aspiration. Today you have to call to say you have arrived. In the future, they will know when you are five minutes away and proactively have your product ready.”
When developing a digital strategy, bear in mind that consumers are expecting a seamless experience across the entire brand, says Sonia Agrawal, Retail Client Executive for IBM Canada. “The ideal is having a similar experience whether in-store, on an app, or visiting an e-commerce site. Millennials and Gen Z shoppers especially expect retailers to know who they are, what they want, and when they want it.”
With that, retailers are spending more time honing in on the seamless experience by leveraging technologies in their stores, she notes. “We know two things about customers. They want to engage with brands they know and love. And they want it to be experiential.”
Elizabeth Ebert, Managing Director, North American IT Advisory Lead at Avanade in Chicago, also sees a notable shift toward providing a seamless and consistent experience across retail segments. “There’s been a transition to focusing on what the customer experience is going to be.”
Digital technology is certainly an important enabler, both for customers and the employees serving them, Ebert believes. “An outstanding customer experience is very much related to the employee experience. It’s about pulling all the knowledge you have about the customer together and giving employees superpowers to help with the transaction.”
A journey of discovery
When it comes to on-site interactive experiences, Cineplex has mastered the art of customer engagement. “Technology and innovation are a big part of creating those interactions,” says Fab Stanghieri, EVP and General Manager, Cineplex Digital Media (CDM).
“Some say retailers use technology to remove pain points. But we look at it as enhancing the in-store experience,” Stanghieri says.
Investing in technology is a means for retailers to maintain their relevance and competitiveness, he explains. “Retail is changing because people want to have great experiences; places where they can discover, shop, eat, and play.”
To help enable these experiences, content needs to have relevance and be driven by design strategies. “There needs to be a reason for what you have. That requires data-driven content that personalizes the experience in the moment while aligning with your brand strategy.”
Digital on display
Digital screens are becoming an important tool in the technology arsenal for retailers, says Bryan Phann, Senior Business Line Manager at ViewSonic in Brea, California.
“The digital experience has evolved rapidly. In the past, static images were displayed. They weren’t dynamic or engaging. Today, you can change prices and content to engage specific consumers. You can find displays anywhere—on shelves, in specific departments, or as large-scale video walls.”
He points to high-end retailers like Coach and Chanel, where video walls and shelf edge displays run a wide range of content. “Customers can also scan QR codes to interact with displays for pricing and coupons, as well as to send emails. We’re seeing a lot of that happening on the retail shelf,” Phann says.
Free standing kiosks have also evolved from basic wayfinding to multi-use fixtures where customers can order products and check out on the spot, he adds.
One of the more intriguing areas of technology innovation is in the retail fashion realm. Companies like MemoMi Inc. in Palo Alto, California, are transforming the shopping experience by applying augmented reality to its line of “memory mirrors”.
“Not only is the hardware more capable than ever before, the networks and data required to pull off these kinds of experiences is better than they ever have been,” explains MemoMi Inc. Chief Innovation Officer Scott Emmons. “Also, the general public is ready to actually go out and try these experiences.”
The virtual dressing room allows customers to view different outfits and colour combinations on the screen and share images with their friends. Tabletop variations allow shoppers to try out different sunglass styles or take part in virtual makeup sessions, also allowing the customer to share images with their friends.
“They can try on a full gamut of product and styles just by using the mirror, which can also show real products with links to the e-commerce site,” Emmons says.
Fitting room frustrations are also being eliminated by innovations such as Passen. This digital measuring technology uses infrared sensors to capture an extremely accurate 3-D digital profile of a person’s measurements in just six seconds. The data can then be used for both in-store and online shopping.
“It streamlines the shopping experience for the customer so they don’t have to look through the whole store to find items that fit. Instead, with this technology, they can simply ask to find the best fitting shirt and be presented with the top five,” explains Stuart Campbell, Passen founder and CEO.
The data that’s made available can also be used to pre-book fitting sessions. “You can tell a stylist you’re coming in at 4:00pm and they can have the right-fitting wardrobe picked and waiting for you in the changeroom.”
For online shoppers, the data can also minimize the number of times people purchase multiple sizes, Campbell adds. “Having to send sizes back is not a good customer experience.”
More than a millennial play
Innovation within the industry will continue to accelerate as retailers explore their in-store digital options, Accenture’s Sahota notes. “Instore presents greater opportunities to create new experiences retailers haven’t even fathomed yet that can allow for greater brand consistency across all channels.”
Although the focus tends to be on millennial shoppers who have a high comfort level with technology and mobile, he believes digital innovation will also help remove the obstacles that stand in the way of aging and non-English speaking populations. “It can help them find products, read labels or talk to virtual assistants on their phone. What if you have technology that can explain products in different languages? In the future, broader access through technology will serve all consumers.”
SAMSUNG BRINGS THE BRAND EXPERIENCE IN-STORE
For Samsung’s retail stores, it’s the interaction, not the transaction, that is key to building relationships with consumers, says Patricia Heath, Vice-President of Retail Excellence at Samsung Canada. Samsung opened its first store in Vancouver in 2012, and since then has
expanded to five in Ontario, B.C., and Alberta. From day one the goal of the company was to focus on delivering an exceptional customer experience, she says. “If the consumer wishes to buy at the store, that’s great. If they prefer to make a purchase of our product at other retailers, that’s fabulous. The idea is for people to have fun and learn. Building an affinity to our brand is the ultimate goal, and the instore technology really drives that engagement.”
The main floor at the Eaton Centre Samsung location, for example, serves as a smart hub, where visitors can explore how devices in the home can interact wirelessly with their phones, from appliances to televisions to door locks and lights. Demo phones and tablets also capture usage data, Heath explains. “As people interact with product we use that information to deliver more relevant content to customers based on what they find most interesting.” A highly successful program is a booking tool, where consumers can share their interests and register for events or one-on-one time with an associate. “If we can find a way of using technology to help people be more efficient with their purchasing, or get improved use out of the products, or simply have more fun—we can create positive brand engagement. It’s all part of delivering more personalized service that is more meaningful and efficient.”