There's no nice way to say this - a bricks and mortar shopping trip can often be a stressful experience. Technology has long been touted as the saviour of the user experience in physical retail but there's a long history of false promises, high hopes and missed chances.
You could fill a graveyard with all the technologies that have been proclaimed as “the future of retail”. For example, QR codes were hailed as a way of bringing a richer, more informed experience to the real world, until it became apparent no one knew how to scan them!
The end of the weekly shop?
Technology takes the tedium out of functional shopping. Digital first retailers such as Ocado have been letting people set and repeat the basics of their shop as a standard order 'template' for years. Amazon has taken this one step further through its Prime service, releasing 'Dash' buttons for everything from coffee capsules to toilet paper to provide a frictionless experience.
The next evolutionary step is to let AIs take the strain and take frictionless to the next step via dedicated voice activated shopping apps - or 'skills' in Amazon’s lexicon. To date Google has partnered with Walmart for its Google home devices, while Ocado has embraced Alexa. Of course you can buy anything from Amazon via its Echo device and it surely can’t be long before WholeFoods has a presence.
As IoT technologies coupled with voice assistants allow us to defer the responsibility for our 'weekly shop', there's little doubt their role will grow. But looking beyond the purely practical, it is not yet clear how bricks and mortar retailers can use this technology to make shopping more engaging. AI personal shopping assistants delivered as branded smart phone apps, could be one possibility.
In popular culture, representations of the near future usually show the requisite robot and/or a virtual reality headset. While robots already have a place in retail, this tends to be in logistics –in warehouses, rather than on the shop floor – and disappointingly they also look less like C3PO and more like Roombas.
Automation could actually remove staff, robotic or otherwise, from retail outlets. Amazon's smart convenience store concept may offer a snapshot of what’s to come. Cash registers are removed from the equation in the Amazon Go store where shoppers are identified by their smart device and their account is charged if they leave the geo-fenced confines of the store with an item.
Of course no exploration of the future of shopping can pass without reference to Tom Cruise's sweater shopping trip in Minority Report where we see him besieged by targeted messaging that turns the experience into a nightmare. Facial recognition and the level of personalisation on display in Spielberg's film veers into the intrusive. The verdict is still out on whether consumers will even opt-in to in-store Bluetooth beacons!
Online to offline
If bricks and mortar retailers are to remain relevant they will need to offer experiences that make consumers want to visit, but also compete on price with their online equivalents. Smart tagging, LED price tags that can be updated in real-time to price-match competitors, offers one solution – at least in providing some of the functionality consumers have come to expect online. That said, it would be unwise to ape ecommerce too closely; while online is mainly about price and convenience, offline should be equal parts function and enjoyable experience - with a touch of surprise as part of the mix.
The human factor
Technology that is shoe-horned in because it suits the retailer more than the consumer will do more harm than good. The key differentiator between offline and digital shopping is that bricks and mortar retail is about putting the customer experience first and foremost.
The two channels are currently locked in a battle for consumers’ hearts and minds (and wallets.) As Amazon has showed us, the technology exists to remove the bulk of shop staff from the equation all-together. However, it is the human factor that most clearly distinguishes the online and offline experiences.
This is something of a double-edged sword. While it is the staff that are best placed to make shopping the type of emotional experience that engenders brand loyalty, they also represent the greatest risk to brand equity. For example, if an item is out of stock at a physical store and a member of staff is rude to you that let-down is doubled. In fact, it can impact negatively upon shoppers’ perceptions of physical retail as a whole, whereas if the same item is out of stock on a website, there’s just one customer pain point.
Getting the basics right to ensure shoppers enjoy visiting should be the number one priority before jumping on to the latest hyped technology. There’s an art to bringing together all the different elements - temperature, décor, lighting, flow, tech – to create a positive user experience.
Retail is at a significant juncture; it can follow the online model in a race to the bottom on price – a race that bricks and mortar retailers cannot win; or it can seek to become more than the sum of its parts to combine the function of the online space with a truly enjoyable CX. If there’s to be a long-term future for physical retail, it must be a pleasure rather than a test of endurance.