Over the last couple of decades, e-commerce has changed the retail game by bringing the "store" to the internet. We have now entered a phase where the next game-changing opportunity for retailers is to bring the "internet" to the store. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, if given a choice, 64 percent of online shoppers prefer to buy in-store. The store isn't dead. Rather, it has become an opportunity to retain and grow customer base.
Pioneering concepts that brought simplicity, convenience and engagement in online shopping are starting to show up in-store. We're beginning to see a sprinkling of digitally powered experiences (think augmented and virtual reality, digital mirrors, robots, digital fitting rooms) in brick-and-mortar stores that improve the in-store experience by providing product findability, ordering, self-checkout, community discovery and enhanced product experiences. And yet, it has proven difficult to measure the true impact and return on investment of these technologies. This article describes three questions to ask when prioritizing and designing in-store digital experiences that can make or break the experience for the customer and, as a consequence, influence impact for the retailer.
The findings in this article are a result of visits to stores across New York City and San Francisco, along with digital experiences and conversations with store associates about the efficacy and adoption of the technologies.
Does it Solve a Problem?
A lot of cool tech feels right to invest in, but if it doesn’t solve a real problem, it's unlikely to be used after the initial euphoria. The Best Buy Fulfillment Robot, placed by the Chelsea, New York City store entrance, solves a definite problem for the busy shopper short on time. Robot "Chloe" allows you to browse products and place an order via a kiosk for small-ticket products such as movies, headsets, etc. It then fills and dispenses the order in the kiosk. In addition to the customer, it solves a problem for the retailer by reducing in-store theft and saving valuable real estate space.
Contrast this with the digital concierge at the new Nike flagship in New York City. The technology lets you make an appointment with an expert, and shows you nearby places to run, eat and more. Consumers visit Nike to buy or browse shoes and athletic products — they don’t go there to solve the problem of finding places to run or eat. The mirror sits tucked away by the entrance and is easy to miss. Even the associate I spoke to wasn't as excited about the digital concierge as he was about other digital experiences in the store. This store also has embedded cameras and sensors in running tracks and a basketball court to solve the problem of finding good-fitting shoes. The digital concierge doesn't solve a problem.
Is it Woven Into the In-Store Experience?
People go to stores to browse and/or buy. They don’t (yet) go there to just play with cool tech. If the technology isn't woven into the shopping path and experience, it's likely to be unnoticed and underutilized.
The Memory Mirror in Neiman Marcus is an interesting example. It captures multiple videos or photos of products worn by the customer, and displays them side by side for comparison. In the sunglasses section, for example, the mirror is placed over the counter. Customers are very picky about the exact look of sunglasses on their face, and are likely to forget how the pair four tries ago looked. Not only does it solve a problem, its placement provides easy access while the customer is trying on several pairs.
The same mirror in women’s apparel is a different story. As per the store associate in the women’s section, it's not used much by shoppers. Its placement outside the fitting room requires the consumer to dress up, step out, parade in front of the mirror, change and do over. Placing it inside the fitting rooms would make it more natural to use.
Is the Store Associate Excited About it?
Which brings us to the last and probably the most impactful factor. At each store I visited, the associate’s enthusiasm and advocacy for the technology influenced my experience. While this should come as no surprise — retailers know the value of the front-line staff in influencing consumers — too many associates were indifferent, unaware or unenthusiastic about the digital experiences. The store associate is a powerful enabler to help the customer discover, engage with and derive value from new technology.
Let’s consider the the Rebecca Minkoff digital fitting room in Soho, New York City. It recognizes RFID-tagged items you walk in with and provides mood lighting, recommendations and an option to order styles and sizes from an associate on the shop floor. The associate was a passionate advocate for the fitting room. It was hard not to be touched by his enthusiasm for the technology. While training and incentives can help develop enthusiasm and advocacy, authentic passion comes from the associate identifying with the digital experience much as they would identify with the brand and the product being sold. Rebecca Minkoff accomplishes this by elevating digital and integrating it into the brand experience.
Digitally powered experiences can truly differentiate a brick-and-mortar store. Enabled by store associate advocacy and integration into the shopping experience, they'll be the new norm in the near future. If done right, digital stores can be a game-changing investment for retailers struggling to compete in the new world of digitally enabled customers seamlessly crossing between online and offline experiences.
Jinny Uppal is a digital retail technology strategist and advisor.