To live is to shop.
Whether stocking our households, refreshing our wardrobes, or buying gifts for the holidays, retail is a constant presence for the average person. In the United States, this has never been more true. Retail sales will approach $4 trillion this year, with holiday spending projected to cross the trillion-dollar mark for the first time ever.
These blockbuster numbers are due largely to e-commerce technology and other digital advancements in the retail space. Our beloved shopping malls and big-box stores may be facing hard times — some would go so far to call it an “apocalypse” — but consumerism in general is thriving as forward-thinking retailers embrace the future.
Recent innovations such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and warehouse robots are helping brands optimize factory floors and fulfill more online orders. All this so-named “smart technology” is helping companies get smarter about how they work (e.g. inventory optimization, task automation). For those running or working at a retail business, the current wave of digital transformation may stretch on for years and bring about untold benefits and hurdles.
These trends carry over into the customer experience, which is changing more with each day.
In 2020 and beyond, smart technology will pervade the world of retail, adding a futuristic edge to our favorite pastime. It promises to make shopping (both in store and at home) more convenient and efficient than ever before. It will also certainly deliver a cool factor throughout, as brands push the limits and bend the rules to use these tech tools and ideas to their fullest.
The malls of yore will always have a place in our hearts. But soon enough they will seem as outdated as a sock hop.
Change can be hard. For many shoppers, adoption may be a slow or even stressful process, and some may continue to seek out familiar experiences. As with most tech revolutions — which are getting hard to keep up with these days — growing pains and pushback are part of the deal. Warts and all, the next generation of retail is well underway in certain stores, industries, and regions, weaving smart technology into the buying process in a variety of ways.
Not all tech trends in retail will go the distance. In general, though, retail is not turning back. “Shopping smart” now means a whole lot more than using coupons, and the customer journey is only poised to get smarter from here. The following are some tech-related retail trends that customers may encounter when making their next purchase.
Cashierless checkout — In January 2018, Seattleites were welcomed into the first Amazon Go store, after it was opened to customers in late 2016. The store made headlines for its cashierless design. Thanks to myriad cameras and various technologies (e.g. computer vision, sensor fusion), shoppers could get in and out without talking to a soul, having their personal Amazon account charged for whatever products they took. At the time, it was a stunt only the world’s now-largest retailer could pull off and be guaranteed success.
Less than two years later, in August 2019, a survey revealed that 28% of retailers are testing cashierless technology. The “grab and go” model is an answer to some of the most common customer complaints: 52% of consumers hate waiting to pay and 49% hate lines, according to a recent Omnico study. With the gauntlet thrown down by Amazon, developers are stepping up to make affordable and scalable solutions for retailers to go cashierless. Meanwhile, there are now 20 open or announced Amazon Go stores spread across prime markets in the U.S. It’s long past being or feeling like a gimmick, and for at least the foreseeable future will be a growing presence in the brick-and-mortar landscape. The simple thought of skipping checkout may pull some online shoppers out into the daylight.
Shopping assistants — The idea of a robotics shopping assistant is not entirely new. You can find some examples dating back five-plus years, such as OSHbot, which was by Lowe’s Innovation Lab and Fellow Robots in 2014. At the time, OSHbot was trialed at a San Jose hardware store, helping customers with finding tools or other items on store shelves. A couple years later, the team at Lowe’s followed the mantra made famous in The Six Million Dollar Man: “We can rebuild him; we have the technology.” In 2017 they ran a pilot for LoweBot, an assistant with more robust capabilities, throughout some of its own stores.
The Lowe’s case is a great example of how tech can be refined and, in a matter of months, redefined. Smart shopping assistants now come in many shapes and sizes, helping customers and employees alike. Some are kiosks, while others are humanoids on wheels. Facial recognition and other functionalities allow these in-store assistants to perform a number of helpful tasks that elevate the customer experience while alleviating employee stress. The idea of intelligent shopping assistants will take on new and different forms, but the trend is likely to barrel forward in conjunction with AI and hardware advancements. Whether helping to push your cart or offering timely product suggestions, virtual assistants will be a staple in many of tomorrow’s retail outlets.
Augmented and extended reality — The second coming of QR codes goes hand-in-hand with AR/VR technology, encouraging shoppers to use their smartphones as a shopping tool. With QR codes, customers can scan labels on products and be directed to special offers, websites, or experiences such as augmented reality (AR) apps. In many other cases, customers will be referred to AR programs through brand websites or in-store signage. AR allows users to view objects in a hypothetical space on their screen — the most well-known examples being the Pokémon in Pokémon Go. Outside of fun branded experiences, this trend is finding significant traction in the overall buying journey, whether visiting a store or shopping from the couch.
As it gains popularity, AR has carved out several major use cases in the retail space, with more around the corner. Largely, AR is leveraged as a means for product exploration. Customers can “try before they buy” with clothes or furniture, such as seeing how a couch would fit in their living room through a virtual depiction. Brands can also increase engagement with augmented tours or even scavenger hunts delivered via phone screens. This trend is continually gaining steam, and brands such as Adidas are finding creative ways to work AR into their retail strategy. We’re glued to our phones already while browsing the store — retail companies are seizing the opportunity offered with AR technology to deliver memorable moments and assistance right on our devices. Considering that the global AR market is projected to cross $100 billion by 2024, shoppers can bank on seeing AR pop up more and more when visiting stores or brand websites.
The age of “smart shopping” is truly just beginning. It’s an exhilarating time to be a retailer, so long as you can keep an open mind and be willing to take some risks — both creatively and financially. Customer experience is increasingly critical for winning business, much like the packaging design and the materials being used. Keep pushing your retail experience forward — finding a place for new tech in the mix — and your customers will come along for the ride.
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