Shopaholics beware, hands-free shopping is here

Shopping just got effortless. Parting with cash and getting the goods we crave has never been easier. Just speak the name of the product you desire into the smartwatch on your wrist, tap three times and you’ve ordered. You can pay for your goods with a couple of taps and a swipe of your Apple Watch as you leave a store.

Wearable technology that goes on our wrists, around our heads, is worn as a badge or is embedded in our clothes is set to tear down the barriers to purchase, creating what retailers call “frictionless” shopping. Shopaholics beware, shopping is getting easier than ever.

The wearable revolution is also poised to transform the way retailers work as they look to equip their staff with devices to improve tasks such as stock-counting and customer service.

Apple Watch

Leading the revolution in hands-free shopping is Apple Watch, launched in April. This wearable can be used in more than 250,000 stores across the UK which accept Apple Pay for goods up to a value of £30.

How businesses use wearables to improve customer experienceMarks & Spencer says 12.5 per cent of its purchases are now through contactless payments, and it has the biggest number of stores that accept Apple Pay and payment by watch in the UK. “Wearable technology is becoming a more prominent consideration in our customer journey,” the company says, pointing out the retail chain’s Cook with M&S mobile app, which has been tailored for use on the Apple Watch offering recipes, a cooking timer and a shopping list which can be ticked off as the shopper goes round a store.

Online grocery retailer Ocado has launched an Apple Watch app that allows voice ordering from your wrist. Say “bread” and the app will bring up a selection of loaves that can be added to your order with three taps.

Meanwhile, eBay’s Apple Watch app allows users to bid, observe and sell items with the flick of their wrist. The online auction site’s chief product officer R.J. Pittman, calls it “effortless commerce at a glance”. Wearables are in their early stages, he says, but he believes they are showing promise on both Android and Apple platforms. And he adds: “We’re learning a lot about the behaviours and patterns from our early adopters on the Apple Watch as downloads and engagement continue to grow.”

For Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at mobile specialist Fetch, wearables will be useful for allaying people’s “fear of missing out” or FOMO as marketers call it. Having an alert vibrating on a wearable when there is a flash sale at a favoured retailer or when a desired product is about to sell out will reassure people they won’t miss out and don’t have to keep checking their phones.

Brands will be thinking about how they can sell on a screen that is an inch big – it has to be intuitive, visually led with icons and seamless

Retailers will use wearables to improve location-based communications. US retailer Target’s watch app tells customers the aisles where they can find goods they are seeking. Wearables will allow retailers to guide people round stores just by vibrations – one buzz to turn left, two to turn right, maybe? – and send offers and discounts directly to people’s wrists or headsets as they navigate a store. If the retailer knows a customer bought jeans previously, they can send them an alert when they approach the jeans aisle offering a discount.

Challenges for retailers

But it is not all plain sailing for wearable commerce. Google axed sales of its Glass headset earlier this year, leaving retailers who had been testing it in the lurch. And some are doubtful about how far consumers will adapt to commerce on a tiny screen.

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group at ad agency J. Walter Thompson, sees the current crop of wearable devices as a stepping stone to an era when connectivity is eventually sewn into the fabric of our clothes.

Google is developing Project Jacquard, which is creating connected fabrics. London-based CuteCircuit has created a dress on which the wearer can display tweets. But the advent of connectivity through smart clothes will create challenges for retailers. “How will you sell to someone if your interface is embedded into their sleeve?” wonders Ms Greene. “Brands will be thinking about how they can sell on a screen that is an inch big – it has to be intuitive, visually led with icons and seamless; they will need to leave the text until later,” she says.

Customer service

Simon Hathaway, global head of retail experience at agency Cheil, part-owned by Samsung, says the Korean electronics giant carried out a test in London’s Portobello Road two years ago giving Galaxy Gear watches to local retailers. For instance, hairdressers were alerted that their next appointment had arrived with a vibration from their smartwatch.

He points to Virgin Atlantic’s trial of Google Glass last year, where staff sporting the headset would greet Upper Class customers as they arrived at Heathrow Airport. They knew from Glass all about the customers’ journeys and requirements. Mr Hathaway believes retailers will eventually use wearables to offer this level of service to customers who opt for it, greeting them as they enter a store and knowing about their shopping preferences.

“Personalisation and convenience are the two big trends in UK retail,” he says. “With a device that gives so much information, they can offer a much more personal experience.” The big challenge for wearable commerce is how that will be delivered.  “Glass is probably the easiest way to do it in a seamless fashion,” he adds.

Despite axing sales of Glass, Google has vowed to continue working on the technology. Meanwhile, virtual reality headsets from companies such as Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook, will be able, for example, to showcase holidays, hotel rooms and furnishings from a retailer’s store or eventually from the comfort of the shopper’s living room.

In the next stage of wearable commerce, devices will vye to become the prime medium of shopping. Watches, glasses, headsets, badges or fabrics? Watches are leading the way at the moment, but the battle is on.