Credit: CC Pixabay
There’s a saying in tech that every company will and must become a tech company or it simply will not stand the test of time. In the last five years alone, we have seen technology’s impact on our daily lives and across industries, including finance, communication, healthcare, music and media. Retail is an industry where technology has especially made waves for both consumers and corporations alike.
E-commerce is rapidly increasing with the advent of smartphones/tablets, the growing number of digital natives, the increase in online retail options (virtual store fronts, online mega-merchandise retailers, daily deals sites, social media offerings, etc), and the multitude of payment options (Apple Pay, Square, PayPal, Bitcoin etc). According to Forrester Research, online retail sales in the U.S. are projected to grow to $414 billion in 2018 (as compared to $263 billion in 2013). Physical stores no longer serve as the only points for discovery and distribution. What we previously could only get in stores we can now get online and with a larger merchandise selection that includes both domestic and international products.
To a certain extent, this levels the playing field for small mom and pop entrepreneurs who want to set up shop with virtual store fronts that either exist independently or within larger sites (Amazon, Alibaba, Etsy, Ebay). But does this change in consumer behavior spell the end of the brick and mortar store? No, but it is about re-positioning them as branding and discovery outlets that lead to online exploration and a more multi-media multi-channel approach to sales. Additionally, we see previously online-only retailers like Birchbox, Warby Parker, Bonobos (and potentially Amazon?) open up physical stores. Why? Many customers still want to touch and feel merchandise and see if they really like a product. Merchants benefit by being able to craft an experience as well as gain customer insight and feedback.
Let’s explore how different retailers have leveraged technology to enhance operations as well as the consumer experience:
In 2014, Samsung set up experience stores in select cities across America. A visit to the one in Nolita, NYC allowed patrons to test out the latest in Samsung’s offerings and experience how they could be used in different settings. For example, the store featured a coffee shop where you could order coffee and cupcakes using Samsung tablets, a mini-design factory where you could come up with a design and print it on totes or t-shirts or even 3D-print your designs, a music section where you could test out wireless headphones and their Milk Music offering, as well as a children’s area where you could test out games and educational toys for children. Patrons were aided by special product reps who would guide you through the exhibits and teach you how to use the products.
Rebecca Minkoff, Tory Burch, DVF, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s
There is a natural affinity that exists between fashion and technology. Great design can enhance the tech experience. Technology can lead to new mediums and new distribution channels for fashion. DVF has featured Google Glass in her runway shows and the company has designed frames and shades for the technology. Tory Burch has partnered with FitBit to design Flex accessories. Rebecca Minkoff, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s have their sights set on using technology in an omni-channel way which includes QR codes and discounts sent to consumers, touch screens in fittings rooms that showcase inventory offerings and enable patrons to ask for assistance, radiofrequency identification technology (RFID), and social media offerings.
Technological advancements have helped shape the food services industry from point of sales systems, to online ordering to e-payment. Starbucks has been a leader in this movement, offering WiFi, wireless charging, mobile payment options, a dedicated Starbucks app and the upcoming adoption of iBeacon technology.
The company many associate with fragrances and candles opened up a pop-up boutique in New York’s Meatpacking District during the 2014 holiday season. It featured a scent lab where patrons could sample the latest candle offerings, a mural made entirely of Glade candles, and 5 themed rooms featuring interactive experiences where consumers would find themselves inside a large conch shell, hear an ocean breeze, smell Glade’s Hawaiian Breeze scent, and take a photo of themselves using barcoded postcards and cameras with timer capabilities or in a fashion shoot full of rich fabrics and flowers, and the scent of Blooming Peony and Cherry in the Flirty Room. The Energized Room featured virtual reality Oculus Rift technology where patrons were invited to a multi-sensory experience of a theme-park type thrill ride through an idyllic countryside with a streams and fields full of flowers, and the scent of Red Honeysuckle nectar.
Story is a retail store concept founded by fellow New Yorker, fourth generation entrepreneur and retail expert Rachel Shechtman, which views itself as a magazine, changes every 4-8 weeks like a gallery (with themes including “Color”, “Making Things” and currently “Well-being”), and functions as a retail store. Companies that have been featured in Story include Target, Intel, as well as a curated set of small independent shops whose stories are told via small note cards about them and their products and feature their social media handles, along with a selection their products.
Lowe’s, Amazon, Alibaba
Besides POS (point-of-sales), ecommerce, and payment technologies, Lowe’s, Amazon and Alibaba have looked into robotics. Fetch Robots is a company that develops self-guided retrieval robots for light industrial companies. Rethink Robotics is another robotics company that has introduced similar technology, with a robot named “Baxter”. A joint venture between SU Labs, Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and Fellow Robotics recently introducted OSHBot, a consumer-facing robot shopping assistant. There has also been interest amongst companies related to drone delivery services.
Ogilvy Digital Labs, IBM Watson, Mastercard Innovation Lab, Plug and Play Tech Accelerator
Innovation is a part of every company’s longevity plan. It’s the way in which a company can delight consumers, improve efficiency and margins, gain interesting partnerships, connect with those creating the cutting edge, and keep itself from being disrupted. A number of companies have dedicated innovation centers meant to be digital sandboxes and collaborative spaces where innovators can come together to exchange ideas and create the next big thing. Ogilvy and Mather recently opened Ogilvy Digital Labs in NYC, as a place to learn about and invest in digital marketing solutions across sectors including Mobile, Gaming, Point of Sales, etc. IBM Watson has a home at 51 Astor Place in NYC, and it is looking into applying its natural language processing, cognitive computing and data analytics company to provide retailers with customer insights. Mastercard Innovation Lab recently held an event at its Flatiron district location featuring mobile payments solutions including Apple Pay and a MasterPass ShopThis! collaboration with Allure Magazine that featured in-context in-app purchasing capabilities for anyone reading Allure using a digital platform. Outside of NYC, California-based Plug and Play Tech Accelerator houses a Brand and Retail Innovation Center designed to connect large brands/retailers with innovators.
Innovation is at the forefront of thought leaders minds when it comes to retail, and technology plays an important role in that. However, technology is still a tool and it works well when it comes to the physical interface of our experiences in the case of drones or robot assistance, as well as when it fades into the background and seamlessly and almost magically improves the consumer’s experience. Will every company become a technology company? Yes, given our current trajectory this statement will hold true, but even more importantly, every company will become a technology-ENABLED company because the true power of technology lies in its ability to power the human experience and the realization of the human imagination .