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Retail 16th January 2018 - 5 min read

What does the future hold for retailers?

By Femi Ajayi

Technologies are emerging which will shape retailing for years to come, but how can businesses prepare for it?

With traditional retailers reeling from the markets embrace of e-commerce and instant gratification, the canny have realised that the future doesn’t lie in knee-jerk sales and desperate cost cuts but in innovation. Customers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on the quality of the shopping experience as much as value. This means that leveraging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will become an essential part of a retailer’s toolkit in the coming years.

Major retailers like IKEA have already implemented Augmented Reality (AR) to create new customer experiences, Levis are using chat-bots to direct customers towards the right pair of jeans and Amazon has acquired ‘Body Labs’ – a VR system created to enable customers to virtually try on clothes before purchase.

Receipts are routinely being emailed to customers, and alternative checkout methods are on the rise. With smartphones commonplace and more sophisticated technologies for scanning products widely available, this trend will only increase. Disruptors like Uber have made the concept of waiting more than a few minutes for a taxi almost alien in some cities, and we have quickly become spoiled with constant up-to-the-minute updates.

Retailers with their finger on the pulse have recognised that the efficiency and convenience experienced by online shoppers also needs to be part of the brick and mortar street level experience too. Apps such as Orderella and Q App enable customers to pay from your phone at a bar or cafe, Sainsburys has its self service smartphone checkout app, and many Starbucks now allow customers to pre-order and pre-pay for drinks on their app, meaning you can literally walk in, pick up your waiting personalised coffee, and walk out within seconds.

Apart from endangering that most British of pastimes – queuing – this presents a big problem for retailers that fail to move with the times, since the threshold at which customers start getting annoyed at waiting is lowered as they quickly get used to these faster and seamless services.

“There will be efforts to create a more cohesive payments process, and ease fragmentation across platforms and solutions in the FinTech space,” says Cody Winton, CEO and co-founder of personal identity platform Credntia. “For example, the introduction of a digitally-scanned license or passport at point of sale will create a seamless user experience by allowing consumers to conveniently switch between the mobile wallet or banking app and a digital credential management app, instead of needing a physical wallet.”

A shoppers location can now be tracked within store and although this technology is in its early stages, in the future indoor navigation may be linked to environments in such a way as to guide customers straight to relevant products. Taking our wallets or even having to take out your smartphone to pay will also become a thing of the past as payment-enabled wearables become increasingly sophisticated and commonplace.

Will Seymour, brand officer at consumer research company Future Foundation, says: “There will be no distance between wanting to have something and the mechanism by which you have it. If you have it, you pay for it. I like to think that shopping in the future will be so easy it will feel like theft.”

Virtual and augmented reality platforms are hotly tipped to be the standout technologies of 2017 allowing customers to ‘bridge the imagination gap’ and preview products in a virtual setting before committing to purchase. John Lewis have already grasped the potential and have invested in its technologies accordingly.

“Customers want to see how a product will look in their own home – both for style and to understand scale. There is a gap at this point in the customer journey at the moment and it is one that visualisation tools will fill in the near future, helping a considered purchase to feel less complex,” says Christine Kasoulis, buying director for home in John Lewis

Augmented/Mixed reality is already showing us how the physical and virtual worlds will merge into unified and blended experiences. Augment developers state that once the next wave of smartphones incorporate depth sensors across the board it will allow for retailers to sell their products in an entirely new way, with AI engines generating 3D objects based upon 2D images that can be visualised and set into the actual space that you have. In the future generating 3D objects will become part of the retail workflow just as photographing their inventory for their catalogue is today.

However, technology isn’t an end in itself. It needs to always come back to ROI, and retailers need to ask themselves how implementing such innovations will help improve the service they provide to consumers. Customers want a feeling of personal service and satisfaction, and that creates opportunities, and this is particularly true in the hospitality sector which usually relies on face-to-face contact at some point in the transaction process.

Data creates opportunities to improve in-store experiences, make customer service provision more agile and efficient, and increase employee satisfaction (which in turn feeds the cycle of improving customer service). With staff having access to mobile devices giving immediate access to the entire product inventory and product details the shopper will have access to a highly personalised service with on hand support. Guided through an optimised store by data with products flagged by the shoppers preferences, these employees will become beacons of knowledge and powerful relationship builders, anticipating and surpassing customer expectations.

“When a customer comes into the store, sales associates will be notified and ready with product offerings based on valuable data they have at their fingertips including the customer’s recent purchases, loyalty rewards level, online browsing history, activity log and shopping preferences,” explains Bill Zujewski, executive vice president of marketing at Tulip Retail.

As big data improves the overall retail customer journey across all sectors, innovation and the adoption of the developing mobile and AI technologies will ensure that they deliver a unique customer experience that is perfectly tailored to their specific market. The future of retail is doubtless going to be immersive, experiential, and personalised, and that paints an exciting picture for both customers and retailers who embrace innovation.

Femi Ajayi
By Femi Ajayi
5 min read

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