The future of bricks and mortar retailing: 'shelfies'

The future of bricks and mortar retailing: 'shelfies'

The magical salesperson who knows exactly what we need is something we all crave.

Until now, we thought that this was retail alchemy, but as Arthur C Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Right now, technology can combine behavioural science and artificial intelligence to replicate this experience in-store without a sales person in sight.

I worked in retail for more than 15 years for many of the largest retail brands in Europe. What we are seeing now is a revolution in the way the retailers can communicate with customers to improve the relationship and increase sales. The technology is coming to a store near you.

We are already starting to experience a more digitally-focused customer experience in store. You only have to go to your favourite fast food chain to find that the person taking your order has been replaced with a smart menu in the form of a digital touch screen. But, in my view, this is missing the real opportunity. Rather than this technology simply being a way of more efficiently taking an order, it can, should and will be used to improve the whole customer experience, by 'participating' in the experience, making on-the-spot informed suggestions and guiding the customer through the buying process.

We have seen early examples of digital displays in retail using imaging technology to identify your demographics, such as gender and age group, to offer your more specific product recommendations. However, in the main, these have not really offered added value to the customer.

The next stage of development will be inspired by the best online experiences and bringing them into the retail store environment. Inspiration for this new in-store experience can come from platforms such as Instagram. As we know, Instagram is full of selfies, all of which give very clear clues to likes, aspirations and buying behaviour. Our selfies provide much more information about us than our ID cards. Instagram is driving such high revenues for its parent company Facebook because they are able to analyse and interpret the data drawn from our selfies, enabling marketers to better predict your needs.

By using the latest imaging technology coupled with advanced behavioural science and AI, it is possible, with all relevant permissions, for an in-store screen to assess your facial expressions in that context, analyse them and offer in real time the products that best suit you. For the consumer, this is offering a far better experience and for the retailer this drives better sales. At Data Practitioners we call this the 'shelfie'.

A prototype MediaMarkt electrical retail store currently open in Barcelona features huge screens, but no products. In fact, it offers something better than the products normally on display at a big box electrical retailer. It offers a life size rotatable image of the product being used. An American-style fridge, for example, has doors that can be opened virtually, revealing fully-stocked shelves. A washing machine can be seen going through its cycle. A hob can be seen laden with pans bubbling away. Once you've chosen your product, you order it on the same screen and it is on its way to your home. The next step in this revolution is to make both the products and the activities that they are performing immediately tailored to the customer's needs. Imagine being offered a fridge on a screen that looks like the perfect match for your taste and then on opening the virtual doors you find that it is stocked with the sorts of things that you are likely to buy or aspire to buy. The technology to do this exists today.

The Holy Grail for bricks and mortar retailers is in turning their stores into the real-world equivalent of Instagram. Data science coupled with behavioural science and technology is coming to a store near you. In my view, permission-based data augmentation to improve customer experience and engagement will soon be vital for retailers.

Is this scary for the consumer? I don't think so. This is simply bringing that wonderful experience you receive from a great, observant, customer-friendly sales assistant into every in-store experience. It will soon be an imperative if you want to maintain a competitive edge in bricks and mortar retailing. Buy now while shops last.

Jean-Pierre van Tiel, Chief Operating Officer,
Data Practitioners

This article appeared earlier in Retail Week.

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