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Retail Futurist Reveals Current Trends Reshaping the Industry

For years, brick-and-mortar retailers have been battling to keep pace with today’s connected consumer, often coming in second to the ease of e-commerce. But the sea of retail robotics emerging in the industry could return the upper hand to retailers who can keep up.

When it comes to shopping, consumers are after a stimulating, interactive, tailored experience when they shop, and retailers that have any hope of maintaining market share will have to see that they get it.

In an interview with Sourcing Journal, the self-described Retail Prophet, Doug Stephens, outlined the current trends taking the sector by storm and offered insight for retailers wondering where to begin.

“Retail was, and until very recently has been, nothing more than a product distribution mechanism,” Stephens said. But “One of the really big transitions that I see going on right now is that media is becoming the store, and the store is becoming media.”

The purpose of media used to be to talk about a brand, share product details and provide some type of call to action to lure consumers to a store to make a purchase. Now all of that has changed.

Now, WiFi-enabled fridge magnets like Evian’s Smart Drop allow consumers to reorder water at the push of a button, for example. Magazine pages have QR codes that readers can scan to find and purchase merchandise. And software solutions company Hointer has developed a fully automated store concept where shoppers can use an app to scan and pick the things they’d like to try on, and the products are delivered robotically to the fitting rooms.

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“Every form of media around us now, whether it’s a TV commercial or radio ad or a magazine ad is the store,” Stephens said. “The store has to stop thinking of itself as a product distribution mechanism and has to start thinking of itself as an experience distribution mechanism and a piece of media,” he added.

When consumers walk into a store today, they expect the experience to tell them something about how incredible that brand is and how amazing their products are. They want to try things they’ve never tried before, have fun, and meet amazing people associated with the brand who represent it and love it, Stephens said. They want to be enveloped in a physical real-life experience.

The consumer may leave that store and later order something from the brand’s website or shop from a mobile device or explore the brand on Facebook and buy something from there. “It doesn’t really matter,” Stephens said. “The purpose of the store is now to deliver the most high octane, visceral experience that they possibly can to turn me into a brand convert.”

Calculating traditional metrics like sales per square foot, sales per hour, sales per associate and gross margin is all OK, Stephens said, but the store must be added to that list as a piece of media to be measured.

Brands now need to look at how many customers visited the store, what their dwell time was, how long they engaged with store associates, what the social media buzz was, and ultimately, how all of those things worked to drive traffic to the store. Technology is constantly changing the way we shop and retailers have to change the way they analyze success.

Perch Interactive is shifting the product display paradigm with new technology that can transform any retail surface into an interactive experience. The innovative technology can sense when a consumer picks up a product and delivers content at the moment of contact. The surface beneath that product can then display images, available colors, reviews and relevant social media about the item. Perch can also track each time a product is touched and deliver web-accessible analytics to retailers in real time.

“We have to start looking at the store now more as a big living commercial for the brand,” Stephens said. “It’s a truly historic transition that’s happening. Its not a little thing, it’s massive and anyone that misses it, any brand out there that’s going to operate stores and misses this transition, is done. They’re finished. In 10 years they won’t be around.”

But if the products have their own info displays, and the consumer gets product detail pop-ups to their smartphone, and payments can be made from mobile devices, what then becomes the role of the store associate?

Stephens said there’s still a place for employees in the store. “You should have people in the store,” he said. “And the role of people in the store should be to assist with things like style and fit and helping customers pick the right look for them.”

Store associates spend most of their time finding inventory, refolding and remerchandising, but if robotics can free them from performing those time-consuming tasks, they could spend more time providing service, Stephens said.

The next big thing, according to Stephens, will be when wearables meet augmented reality.

Layar, a Dutch augmented reality company created an app for Google Glass that, once installed, would allow the wearer to look at a street lined with restaurants, for example, say, “OK Glass, scan this,” and Google Glass will find the restaurants’ reviews and display them in the wearer’s right eye.

In terms of retail, Layar for Glass could be used to get extra value material from magazines, like product-related videos, while the user peruses the publication.

“Imagine being able to navigate the consumer universe with this sort of sixth sense, this super power,” he said. “I think we’re going to see huge things in augmented reality in the next five years from now.”

Beacon technology was another area Stephens outlined as one to watch. Sensors that consumers can connect to in environments like retail stores are going to essentially start “talking” to us, informing our journeys through those spaces and communicating with us on a personal basis as we opt into the technology, Stephens said. This will be pivotal in personalizing the shopping experience for each consumer.

“At some point in the near future, we’re going to walk into stores, take what we want and walk out,” Stephens said.

These innovations are moving from idea to implementation faster than many retailers can keep up, but Stephens said taking a step back is the first step in moving forward with today’s retail technology.

“Brands say to me, ‘Where should we start?’ ‘What’s really cool?’ ‘What should we look at?’ Stephens said. “But my answer to them is always that you really shouldn’t start by asking that question.”

Before anything else, brands need to clearly outline their identity and position in the marketplace, and decide what experience they want to provide for customers.

“Define it, not in abstract terms like, ‘Oh we want it to be great service,’ but in a detailed, engineered way,” Stephens said. At every junction in the experience, brands must determine what they are hoping to do, and what they want customers to think and feel during the experience.

“If you can articulate all of that in a very, very precise way,” Stephens said, “Then and only then can you intelligently go out to the marketplace and find the technology you need. Because before that, you’re like a 5-year-old in a big Toys “R” Us store when someone says, ‘Which three toys do you want?’ It’s impossible decide.”