Retail activity might have dipped during the pandemic, but it's bouncing back – with a vengeance.
Ecommerce is booming right now due to technological progress – but so is retail. Post-pandemic, retail is here to stay, with an even stronger focus on the customer experience.
One of the main reasons people want to return to physical stores is to touch things. Humans are innately tactile, and touching something helps us understand how it's going to fit into our lives. For some, retail shopping is a leisure activity. It's a reason to leave the house and interact with other people.
The store is a magnetic place, too; a spiritual hub for the brand where the abstract becomes concrete. It's a place where customers advance their way through the awareness funnel – from attraction, to engagement, to loyalty.
Thankfully, new methods of communicating, interacting and experiencing mean the shopping experience is about to get a lot more enjoyable – and profitable.
As we step into a bold and inspiring future for bricks and mortar stores, it's time to embrace technologies that make it better for the customer and increase sales for retailers. Here are some of the in-store technologies you should be most excited about.
While you might be thinking of humanoid sales assistants carrying around trays of free cake samples, it doesn't have to be anywhere near as complicated. Yes, one day it might be the norm to see a dancing robot dog walking the aisles of your local supermarket, telling you all about the latest offers. But in-store robots can take the shape of Tokinomo - a simple box with a robotic arm that holds out products on a shelf, accompanied by a short message.
One Tokinomo use case was for a coffee brand. Packets of coffee were offered by the device to passing shoppers, along with a message like "you're looking great today - why not treat yourself to a coffee?"
The result: an 841% increase in sales. It's hard to ignore a levitating packet of coffee, and it's hard to ignore results like that.
In-store robotics have a bright future. The three primary uses are for real-time promotions (as above), customer service (helping customers find things or address problems) and operations (warehousing and moving inventory around).
With a little up-front investment, the efficiency gains and in-store sales uplift could be phenomenal for some retailers.
The Augmented Reality (AR) scene is massively expanding in retail, with more and more brands implementing AR experiences in their stores. Most mobile devices are now capable of running AR applications through their camera lens, so most customers will be equipped to experience them.
For retail customers, this means they can place virtual furniture in a real environment (like Ikea products), as well as try on virtual clothes, watches, or even tattoos. Car showrooms can use AR to show different variations of the same model, like differing paint colors or accessories.
AR has to be deployed in a non-gimmicky manner of course - trying on real watches is obviously preferable, so AR isn't a full replacement. But if the store doesn't have the exact watch someone's looking for, they can still try it on without having to wait for new stock to arrive. This could mean the difference between a sale and a lost customer.
In fact, 40% of consumers say they'd pay more for a product they can customize in AR, and 61% of them say they'd rather shop in a store that has AR experiences. This is big news for impulse buying, too: 72% of AR users say it influenced them to purchase things they didn't initially intend to buy.
It's no secret that audio enhances the retail customer experience in a bunch of different ways.
We've already seen how well-targeted sound increases retail sales, whether it's through simple background music chosen to convey a certain emotion, or more familiar music you've already used in other channels, for more effective brand activations.
One use is to bring attention to specific areas. If you've got a part of your store with lower footfall than elsewhere, you can increase its value by playing directional sound to attract more activity: for example, a promotion for certain nearby customers.
You can get even more specific by linking directional speakers to your digital signage. Imagine: you have a display kiosk in a quiet showroom. A customer stands at the touchscreen and learns more about the item. A beam of directional audio discreetly broadcasts further information or brand-linked music towards them, without anyone else being disturbed.
One grocery store trialed this approach and found a 14% average uplift in sales across all advertisements. You could also try this at different steps of the customer journey: anywhere that decision making is involved, like point-of-sale displays (POS), shelving racks, customer service points, or pick up points for online orders. It's a great way to enhance the store experience without being intrusive or disturbing to other shoppers.
Taking the idea a step further, larger stores might adopt the Amazon Go system of consensual identification: a customer picks up their products and walks out without interacting with a cashier or checkout process. It's being adopted by other brands including Starbucks, so it might indicate that shoppers really like this experience (especially with hygiene concerns during the pandemic). So you could theoretically broadcast customized audio directly to a single customer telling about a discount that's available just for them.
Really, the only limit is your imagination.
From the minimal to the grandiose, immersive retail displays and experiences are a superb way to increase customer engagement, sales and brand recall.
But how do you make the best retail experiences?
Be creative. Think like a museum curator. People are drawn towards novel, exciting experiences, and love telling their friends and family about it on social media. So, if you have the resources, why not experiment with a colorful, immersive display piece for your next promotion?
Targeted sound, light shows, laser beams, moving objects, digital signage, and a combination of the above tech will all go towards a memorable, fun and engaging experience for your customers. Color matching your merchandise makes for aesthetically pleasing displays, but also influences emotion – and therefore, purchasing decisions.
How about a hologram showing your best product in three dimensions? Or a 3D billboard that makes your product pop out of the screen? Or an elegantly decorated set that's focused on one product and customized to your local area?
Despite the pandemic, and doom-laden prophesies from newspaper commentators, retail isn't dead.
In the words of the Retail Prophet, we don't shop just to acquire goods, in the same way we don't visit restaurants just for nutrition. It's a communal activity, a way of participating in a social undertaking that fulfills us on a deeply human level.
Most commentators agree that the future of retail is heading in an 'omnichannel' direction: a combination of physical retail and digital storefronts.
Consumer expectations will demand a hybrid experience, according to James Sawley, Head of Retail & Leisure, HSBC UK:
"Over the next ten years, consumers will be utilising a mix of physical and digital touchpoints with the same retailer to make purchases. The experience of being a customer will be so intertwined between the digital and physical, that it will be impossible for many retailers to determine between the two."
Some of the biggest online-first brands are rapidly opening retail stores, bringing a consistent brand experience to their customers. Peloton became famous for the aspirational online ads for their home fitness cycles, but nothing persuades a customer like an in-person trial – which explains their 100+ showrooms. Not every visitor will buy a $2000 bike, but a good number of them will leave having built a deeper relationship with the brand. Initiatives like these are all part of the plan.
If you can use these technologies to build relationships and enhance your brand alongside increasing on-the-day purchases, your retail store is due for some great results (as well as your online sales).
Finally, if you want a longer-term view of retail's future, listen to Jensen Huang, CEO of computer processor manufacturer NVidia. His extravagant view of what lies ahead for retail imagines automation as the real game-changer:
"The fact is that everything that moves will be autonomous: planes, trains, automobiles, trucks, shuttles, last-mile delivery, pick-and-placers. Entire retail stores will be autonomous. They’ll even drive around. A retail store will show up at your door, a robotic retail store."
Showing up at your front door? Talk about convenience stores...
It seems that technological progress means the story of retail is far from over.