Back in 2001, I was asked to help brand a Bluetooth® retail technology platform. At the time, I was completely unfamiliar with Bluetooth…in fact I’d only recently acquired a bells-and-whistles-free cell phone. The gentlemen behind the initiative had several IPOs under their collective belts, a significant amount of secured venture funding and a clear understanding of the promises in the patents of emerging mobile technologies. It took a while to understand exactly what they hoped to do, but slowly dawned on me that the device I held in my hand (well, maybe not MY device) could communicate with a store environment in interesting ways. It was, they envisioned, a portal to the future of commerce and would revolutionize the way I shopped. A mere 18 months later, their stylish offices were vacant and I had chalked the idea up to yet another unnecessary solution in search of a problem.
10 years later, I appreciate the genius of their foundational idea, conceived well ahead of its time. And I have a much better phone. As a consumer, I’m ready to engage, simply because I have a greater comfort level with technology and have become increasingly reliant—and delighted—by it. When I first got my iPhone, I was told that it would change my life. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes. It turned out to be absolutely true.
As a retail designer, I’m anxious for the future promised by my ill-fated venture capitalist friends. With the slow strengthening of the retail sector, I’m hopeful that this technology-fueled future of a decade ago will finally become a reality. Prada’s 2001 SOHO location was a memorable first attempt, and by most contemporary accounts, a spectacular failure. Love it or hate it, it was a bold foray, both in terms of technological possibilities and consumer expectations. But where is the heir apparent, today?
There are four fronts in this battle to reclaim the future. Each is a universe of opportunity for innovative retailers to reach their customers on a more intimate and personal level.
Responsive Environments are consumer-centric spaces that allow visitors to influence them in a relevant and interesting way. According to Bruce Vaughn, CCO at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, even Disney is “making the guests more active, rather than passive…consumers are no longer content as simply voyeurs.” For instance, children might help fairies prepare a virtual 16th birthday party for Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, and assist Cinderella with preparing for a ball, instead of simply shaking hands with a favorite character.
There are surprisingly few interesting examples in retail. Adidas’ adiVerse allows self-curated digital browsing of over 8000 virtual shoe styles at the swipe of a finger. TopShop’s ShowStudio mirror provides real-time celebrity assessment of your outfit. Intel has created a jumbo-sized, retail floor based version of Layar-style augmented reality, but presumes that whatever you’re interested in is conveniently within the sightlines of the viewing area. The promise of a true environmental responsiveness inherent and appropriate to the retail experience is still very much an undiscovered country.
Responsive Products are most easily described as portals to enhanced, personal experiences. Savvy retailers can enable a new level of consumer interaction with their products: bringing them to life in a three-dimensional way, embedding an accessible universe of information within the product, or using smart shopping devices to provide deeper product information or knowledge.
Lego’s augmented reality interaction magically brings boxed product to life in-store, and is still one of the best examples out there. Would-be assemblers hold the packaged product up to the interactive terminal and see, with live motion and sound, exactly what the assembled construction will look like. This literal through-the-looking-glass moment effortlessly engages prospective purchasers with the environment, product and brand.
Instant access to information is increasingly in the hands of consumers as smart phones proliferate. QR codes are the somewhat inelegant, if increasingly ubiquitous, mechanism du jour. Simply snapping a picture of a QR code on a product package or in-store sign (assuming you have your phone handy and the correct app loaded), connects shoppers with an additional depth of information, media content or digital coupons.
In the not-so-distant future, we can expect our mobile devices to include near field communication readers which, when placed in close proximity to an RFID-embedded product, magically access any product or marketing content imaginable, without the contrivance of reading a code.
Transaction 2.0 is on the rise. Apple probably gets the most nods for innovating the queue, with their roving, handheld-wielding geniuses. But invariably, when someone purchases more than an iPhone accessory, they‘re steered to the traditional counter, now confusingly beside the appointment-only Genius Bar. It’s important to remember that any innovation in a process has implications for all aspects of it.
The Starbucks Card mobile app has evolved in both operational efficiency and depth of brand engagement. It’s easy, elegant and allows users to accrue points for perks with each use. Given the proliferation of Starbucks, it won’t be long before almost everyone witnesses this streamlined exchange and wonders why everything isn’t as easy. Even the small guys in on the joke with the Square iPhone and Square Register iPad apps. Sole proprietors appear just as sophisticated as their big box rivals, especially when my receipt is emailed. I already infrequently carry cash in my wallet. Can the wallet really be that far behind?
Tribes are forming around your favorite brands. Social media has created an expectation of authorship, creating direct implications for physical engagements as well. Thoughtful retailers are eliciting feedback from consumers, allowing them to personally influence their favorite (or not so favorite) retail experiences.
MyStarbucksIdea.com and Dell’s Ideastorm.com create a forum for customer recommendation, offering a bold level of operational transparency and commitment to supporting customer-directed changes in their stores. And what retailer doesn’t have the option to be “liked” on Facebook these days? “Social Shopping” is typically thought of as an online activity. The truth is, physical shopping is, and will always be, a richly social experience. The web and smart phone camera has just made it more interesting. Whether providing camera and social media-enabled dressing rooms or simply relaxing in-store photography restrictions, there are ways to invite people to invite others into the experience you offer.
Innovative brands will also turn their attention to employee tribes. An often-sighted failure of the Prada store was employees’ failure to embrace and understand the technologies at their disposal. Training was too expensive and systems were abandoned. Future employee tribes will be as tech-savvy as their spending counterparts, further lowering the barrier of exploration for retailers. Who will offer them the most satisfying and dynamic employment experience? Access to information, support of the sales floor, new ways to engage customers — these are the more operational, though fundamentally as important, facets of a successful dynamic consumer experience.
Retailers ignore these fronts of innovation at their peril. Just as the television replaced radio, just as Netflix replaced Blockbuster. Technology and its impact on consumer expectation is a force of destruction and creation, everywhere. I want to shop the future. Now who’d like to build it?