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Just three to five years ago only a handful of forward-thinking big retailers were integrating technology into their stores. These were mostly designed to facilitate point of sale promotions, to display branded content through screens or to facilitate browsing via iPads. When Burberry launched its flagship store back in London’s Regent Street in 2012 it was considered ahead of its time promoting its ‘high-tech wizardry’ as a way of replicating elements found in the Burberry World online.

Fast-forward to 2016 and technology has rapidly developed, as has how retailers think about technology in relation to the branded shopping experience. 157-year-old Macy’s has adopted Artificial Intelligence to create a mobile app called ‘On Call’ to help customers navigate the store by using natural language queries. Timberland’s New York store is said to be unveiling a Touch Wall at its White Plains, NY store. Powered by Near-field Communication technology it will give shoppers the ability to transfer product information from the wall to their phones for use later. John Lewis used Augmented Reality in-store to help customers visualise how furniture could look in their home. Last year Japanese retailer UNIQLO installed a neuroscience fashion campaign in Australia to help customers select clothing based on their mood.

Technology - and the data which it generates - facilitates a new way of serving customers such as personalisation and curation, convenience, excitement, brand experience and for making efficiencies in delivering those services. But it also gives brands the ability to engage with customers at times when traditionally they wouldn’t have been able to. Shop windows for example are mostly blank potential revenue generating spaces in the evenings, especially for premises in prime locations. They could host installations to advertise not only their own business, but other non-competing businesses, events and facilities in the local area. Retailers could earn revenue per advertisement displayed, or using touch or gesture input: “clicks” from the public. 

With the development of ever more advanced AR headsets, retailers should also be considering how to make use of these once the public begin to use the devices out in the real world. Playstation VR for instance is currently only thought of as a gaming platform but this brings virtual reality into our homes giving retailers the opportunity to piggy back off the technology and bring shopping experiences to customers.

The face of retail spaces is also changing. Earlier this year Sonos opened its first retail store in Soho. The purpose of the store is to give customers the opportunity to experience the product through purpose-built sound rooms and to demystify how it is used. In late 2015 cosmetic brand Sephora opened its first store in Paris with no physical products at all. Clearly targeted at millennials, it only contained digital technologies such as discovery tables, virtual shopping baskets and a selfie mirror.

With technologies becoming more accessible and affordable for smaller retailers we expect to see brands breathing new life into their omni-channel marketing programmes in 2017/18. However, the challenge today remains the same as it did back in 2013 when omni-channel was all the rage; how do you give customers a consistent and frictionless experience in whichever channel customers chose to transact in. Mobile - and now beacon and NFC technology - give consumers instant access to reviews, price comparisons and to buy online, and the choice to access products when and where they want. As a result, retailers need to work out how and when to engage and serve their customers in new and meaningful ways, across a broad range of touch points.

We’re excited for the marriage between retail and technology but we’re also concerned that some retailers could be left behind and those that do deploy technology into their brand experience will have not thought through its application, or thoroughly explored the opportunity with customers through research.

Technological advancements are not only fuelling a new wave of digital experiences, but also giving brands the ability to rapidly test and refine applications. Large retailers such as Amazon, Ebay and Walmart have large R&D budgets and the likes of Tesco’s, John Lewis and Boots have their own innovation labs working on improving the customer experience. Mid-sized businesses don’t have these large budgets and also have a harder job convincing the board that they should invest their money in a little known technology.

Following an evidence-based design process to tease out both business and consumer problems can take some of the risk out of designing applications for new technology. It can also be a leaner and cheaper process which means you can get a prototype out onto the shop floor for testing much faster than the larger companies who invest vast sums of money with management consultancies. Prototypes are also a great way of engaging with board members who are often more detached from the front-line. PowerPoint is a flat, unengaging method for showcasing new ideas, whereas prototypes give stakeholders something they can touch and use. Backing your physical prototype up with evidence from real customer feedback simply lends weight to your argument helping you get buy-in and investment for rolling it out throughout your stores.

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