Innovating for a better shopping experience

Scott Lester, Chief executive and founder Flixmedia

Futuristic technologies have emerged from the dark recesses of fantasy and sci-fi, and dipped a tentative toe into mainstream retail. From virtual and augmented reality to artificial intelligence (AI) and voice-enabled personal assistants, retailers have trialled and tweaked to enhance and personalise the shopping experience.

A one-size-fits-all approach to presenting products and shopping experiences online is no longer enough to gain and retain consumers. In 2018 we’ll therefore see a rise in the number of retailers offering more immersive shopping experiences and personalised product pages that adapt to an individual consumer’s preferences.

There’s a fine line between immersive technology solutions that actually solve some of the challenges shoppers face and those which create new issues due to impracticability and cost.

IKEA shoppers can now visualise bookshelves and beds in their living rooms and bedrooms, thanks to the retailer’s Apple ARKit-powered app, while Amazon took the augmented reality concept to the masses with AR View. On the other hand, the market for and adoption of smart glasses by retailers and marketers has failed to take off.

Digitalisation was once seen as the major disruptive force in retail, but is now commonplace and an obvious next step for companies evolving in the sector. Instead, virtualisation and immersive technologies are sending shockwaves through the industry, as businesses arm themselves with the tools to deliver retail’s holy trinity of consumer demands: simple, convenient, engaging.

Retailers will only be able to satisfy increasingly demanding and expectant consumers if solutions providers continue to invest and innovate

Empowering today’s shoppers means delivering a holistic experience, which seamlessly incorporates both the physical and virtual, blurring the boundaries that can exist with traditional, more siloed strategies.

Amazon can be credited with pioneering such a change in one of the most rigid and stagnant sectors of retail: payments. The opening of the first Amazon Go store in Seattle nudged the cashless checkout concept from niche novelty to a potential blueprint for convenience stores of the future. The promise of no queues and real-time personalised product recommendations, on the consumer side, and rich data insights, on the retailer side, mean the Amazon Go model is likely to be replicated across the industry.

Payments and immersive technologies are just two examples of digital innovations aggressively entering the retail space and receiving a warm welcome from many industry players. The success or failure of such experiments will depend on whether brands and retailers can leverage the right technology to deliver what consumers want. The cashless checkout concept, for example, will have to guarantee payment security and not overstep the mark when it comes to in-store shopper surveillance.

On the topic of what consumers want, over the coming year we’ll see the current incremental steps being made in AI and predictive analytics swiftly turn into significant strides. The future shopping environment will be powered by AI and retailers’ technology that will “know” what the consumer wants before they do.

We’ve already seen “buy” buttons incorporated into social media platforms, enabling instant, immediate purchases, so it’s only a matter of time before this model is taken to the next level. Smart, voice-enabled personal assistants will link with smart appliances in a consumer’s home, so running out of milk, for instance, will prompt your smart fridge to communicate with your smart assistant, which will automatically reorder the product.

The likes of Amazon benefit from the resources and talent to deploy new innovations rapidly. Yet the success of a future shopping experience that is both immersive and engaging is dependent on a wider scope of the retail industry being able to access and wield these tools. Ultimately, retailers will only be able to satisfy increasingly demanding and expectant consumers if solutions providers continue to invest and innovate.