As we approach the peak of the holiday season, many of us are wrapping up our shopping lists by purchasing gifts online. Annual growth in online sales on “CyberMonday” this year continued to outperform growth of in-store sales on Black Friday, according to Econsultancy, an ecommerce consulting firm. For busy shoppers, the convenience of selecting an item to purchase, gift wrap, and ship all in a few clicks is hard to beat. However, brick-and-mortar retail is beginning to respond to this challenge by using technology to innovate the in-person shopping experience in ways that are designed to provide both convenience and excitement for shoppers. Let’s take a look at two of the most interesting ideas to emerge:
One big advantage online retailers have over traditional retail is their ability to acquire detailed data about their customers through the purchasing process. For instance, if you’re a science fiction buff who purchases e-books through Amazon, the retailer’s complex algorithm will suggest additional books you might be interested in, offer discounts on the DVD box sets based on your favorite books, and even make recommendations on seemingly unrelated items like cookware. Physical stores can’t replicate this fine-grained process, despite their efforts to track purchases via loyalty cards and the like.
Enter location-based technology. Apple and a handful of other companies have introduced technology that tracks shoppers’ movements in a store, with the aim of pushing information about items for purchase directly to your smartphone. For example, if you spend a few minutes browsing handbags at a department store but do not make a purchase, Apple’s iBeacon technology tracks that time and, if prompted by the retailer, could send you a coupon for 10 percent off the brands featured in that display. This mimics the advantages online retailers have as your clicks and time-per-page are tracked. For now, this location-based platform is an opt-in technology, but the future may hold more extensive applications.
Omnichannel retailing has been touted by business thought-leaders as the next big thing in shopping. It simply refers to reaching out to consumers through a variety of linked shopping platforms, including visits to physical stores, websites, mobile apps, and catalogs. The Omnichannel approach then aims to increase efficiency and convenience for the consumer, ultimately increasing the likelihood of a purchase.
For example, this multi-pronged approach allows a consumer to compare prices and reviews for a product online before venturing to the store to view or test the product in person. Or instead of forcing a consumer to buy a product, like a printer, based on store availability or forcing them to pay for shipping and to wait several days for the product they want to be delivered, retailers can bridge this gap by offering in-store pick-up. Just order the item online and in 1–2 days, it arrives at your local store for pickup with no shipping costs to you.
Omnichannel Retailing can also be a lot more complicated. According to the Harvard Business Journal, the South Korean subsidiary of UK grocery retailer Tesco was experiencing lagging sales. Market research showed that their target shoppers – busy professionals – didn’t have time to visit a supermarket on the way to or from work. So, they brought the shop to the shoppers with highly interactive, brightly lit electronic replicas of supermarket aisles in Seoul’s busiest train stations. The “aisles” featured the most popular grocery items, and shoppers could use their smartphones to select, purchase, and arrange for same-day delivery of their baskets.
While location-based technology and Omnichannel retailing can customize and improve the ease of the shopping experience, there are some advantages that brick-and-mortar stores will always have over their online counterparts, particularly in the apparel and food markets. Even infinite choice cannot always replace the assurance of trying a shirt on or handling a piece of fruit to make sure it’s ripe. The biggest challenges traditional retailers face – data collection and 24-hour convenience – may be surmountable with technology. Successful examples, such as South Korea’s virtual grocery store, require a combination of data collection and on-demand delivery that replicate the conveniences of online shopping while providing novelty and additional ease. The future of in-person shopping is already here in many ways, and continuously evolving mobile technology will only make it easier for retailers to experiment.
Photo: Mike McCune, Flickr