“Hi Renee. The tank top you bought last time is on sale. You should check them out,” says the holographic image of a perky sales associate as she walks into the store.
As she tries one on, another “sales assistant” appears in the corner of the fitting room’s full-length mirror. “We got new jeans that would look great with that top (a picture of the item appears). Just tap the image and I’ll show you how they’ll look.”
Welcome to the world of “Augmented Reality,” the convergence of personal shopping, robotics, smartphone and information technology that makes the barcode look like a cave drawing. But this isn’t the stuff of science fiction. Augmented reality of one kind or another is being tested everywhere from Abu Dhabi to London to Tokyo. It has the potential to reshape the in-store experience and even make online shopping, as we know it, obsolete.
Retail Game Changers?
Up to this point, most technological advances were geared to behind-the-scenes activities like supply-chain efficiency and product replenishment. Of course they still are, and anyone who hasn’t taken advantage of it already might want to look around for a new career. But with consumers having 24/7 real-time access to every retailer and product category under the sun—not to mention a short attention span—customer-facing technology in the stores is the new frontier.
Although the recession stifled technology spending in some quarters, retailers and researchers know it can be a game changer in a rapidly shifting retail landscape, and some are committed to this brave new world.
Scientists at Intel are developing a digital fitting room consisting of a high-tech mirror that uses parametric technology to show customers how clothes will look on them.
Me-Ality (short for measured reality) already operates about 50 kiosks in mall locations around the U.S. Shoppers step into it for a 10-second, fully-clothed body scan, and it matches a person’s measurements to brands, styles, prices and retailers in its database.
Tesco is starting to roll out “magical” mirrors or “Tweet Walls” at its Westfield department store in London. This uses a built-in, web-enabled digital camera that enables shoppers to show friends on Facebook and Twitter how various outfits look and get their feedback. And if they decide not to buy the item, the brand’s web address is sent automatically to their emails should they change their mind.
Just before Christmas, the chain tested an 80-inch interactive touch screen in one of its toy departments giving customers access to 11,000 items. The chain used this same “Virtual Wall” smartphone technology to sell groceries at London’s Gatwick airport and a subway station in South Korea.
Another twist from Tesco, always an early adopter of cutting edge technology, is now taking place at its Welwyn Garden City Merchandising Center. Large screens display hi-res images of products with different sales rates. Buyers and merchandisers then create new planograms for individual stores based on sales frequency. Because the process is no longer done physically, planning time has reportedly been cut in half.
One of my favorites is in the Vanquish Department store in Tokyo where interactive hangers containing RFID chips transmit information on the item to a video screen above the rack. So this not only facilitates purchasing, but also lets the store know which items are more popular.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine touch screens showing chefs preparing different dishes using products in the store and enabling shoppers to actually smell the dish. It was actually tried 50 years ago when smells tied to different points in the movie were released in theaters. Tell me we haven’t come a long way since “Smell-O-Vision” and “Smell-O-Rama” of the 1950s.
A few years away, but still within reach, are 3D printers enabling customers to make their own towels, clothes and utensils. And Google is developing “smart” glasses; lightweight eyeglasses containing a camera, microphone and a screen that will enable customers to access information about anything they are looking at.
Smart TVs utilizing multimedia, will create a more interactive and immersive online experience for shoppers. Intel, for example, is working on a subscription TV service with a streaming device that contains a camera. The idea of a TV watching you is a bit creepy. But that’s progress!
Peek-a-boo, Eye See You!
However, there are some interesting conundrums. For instance, how far can you use this technology on the pretense of improving the in-store experience before customers feel their privacy is being violated by a 21st Century “eye in the sky” that knows what they bought, when, for how much and how susceptible they are to buying some-thing else?
Industry pundits are also wrestling with the question of whether less interpersonal contact between customers and associates is really desirable. Frankly, customer service, the hallmark of every great retailer since John Wanamaker, is often the only thing differentiating one store from another. The upside is that things like virtual assistants and high tech LCD mirrors will enhance the customer’s shopping experience across multiple channels while increasing sales, margins, profits and back office efficiency. In fact, some pundits believe that the introduction futuristic technology could change retailing more in 10 years than it has in the last 100 by transforming retailing into a more customer-friendly and fun environment. In essence, it is about turning a bunch of bricks and mortar into a showplace and entertainment center that goes far beyond the current and somewhat disingenuous phrase “retailtainment.”
On a lighter note, you can be pretty sure that technology won’t join a union, hang around outside the store smoking, sit in the breakroom complaining, or call in to skip work because it has to go to their grandmother’s funeral—for the third time.
To quote the godfather of the digital age Bill Gates, “Never before in history has innovation offered the promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”
That’s nice, Bill. But do these pants make my butt look big?