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Stepping into the Retail Store of Tomorrow


By Mark Kirstein, Zebra Technologies

The rise of online shopping – and specifically the rise of smartphone use and mobile shopping – is transforming the retail landscape and requiring retailers to adapt to new shopper expectations. Today’s consumer is a connected shopper equipped with more information than ever before, able to compare prices, read reviews, and check out competitors from any location with just the phone in his or her pocket. However, in many ways we consumers still prefer the experience of shopping offline, personally browsing, handling and selecting merchandise, calling upon face-to-face help and advice from store associates, and receiving the visceral thrill of making an in-person purchase.

Make no mistake about it: Mobile shopping experiences that carry into the brick-and-mortar retail space are the future of retail. Google Consumer Surveys for Black Friday 2014 find that nearly 50% of 25-34-year olds used their phones to shop online while standing in line at the store, and shopping searches on Google coming from smartphones increased 3.5 times year-over-year. IBM’s report on Online Holiday Mobile Shopping for 2014 showed that mobile sales reached 22.6% of all online transactions, and mobile shopping traffic reached 45% of all online shopping traffic, both setting new records. Extrapolating on findings like these, Deloitte predicts a hefty $689 billion in in-store sales due to smartphone interactions by 2016.

So, with this new backdrop of heavy growth tying to the offline shopping experience, what’s a retailer to do? Many are smartly adapting their consumer apps to deliver more personalized experiences, utilizing big data to understand and anticipate shoppers’ needs. Dawning technologies like Bluetooth low energy (BLE)/Bluetooth Smart, RFID, and the Internet of Things – and accompanied by techniques like video analytics of shopper behavior – will assist retailers in offering an immersive experience that is fluid and synchronized between online and offline customer interactions. Contrary to traditional notions viewing tech as detached and impersonal, these technologies will team up to deliver and enhance warm human interactions in the retail environment.

Retailers building apps for employee and backroom use will feed off of the developments of these new capabilities. With tiny RFID transmitters in every retail product containing the full details of the SKU, Bluetooth low energy technology keeping track of every product’s location, and enterprise-grade IoT apps connecting to thousands of these sensors within a store to inform and empower both store personnel and consumers, many fantastic new retailer services become possible.

Consider a store with 50,000 SKUs and just as many product labels; IoT apps on the business-side will grant store workers and managers real-time operational intelligence to identify issues and opportunities, and give them new abilities for taking real-time action. With at-a-glance, up-to-the-minute insights into store inventory, shipments, and customer behaviors, store personnel could make nimble moves, such as smarter ordering and operations on the backend, implementing dynamic pricing changes with the use of electronic shelf labels, or offering customized coupons to customers in proximity to a product and on the fence about buying (in the future, the Blue Light Special is the Bluetooth Low Energy Special).

The consumer counterparts to these apps will make use of these same technologies to improve the in-store experience while remaining user-friendly, and require similar tools, cross-platform capabilities, and developer talents to produce. For example, imagine that a phone message welcomes you by name as you enter the store, and offers discounts on what you’re looking at while you shop. Retail apps could include detailed store maps, possibly highlighting sections with personalized offers that are likely of interest to you. Getting help in the store at any time is easy: just press a button in your app to have a store assistant come to you, one who already knows enough of your information to get right down to business. The result for shoppers will be a more intuitive experience where they can interact with the store and store associates however they want, while commanding all the savvy that comes with having one foot in the online world.

The challenge for retailers is in embracing this new level of connectivity and integrating the best online information into the customer’s offline experience. From a retailer’s perspective, it will become more possible (and more necessary) to gather data around customer browsing and purchase history, and put it into action with strategies for segmentation, personalization and retargeting – with apps as a big part of that initiative. Data research will help retailers build experiences leveraging big data, get the best information in front of customers to make the case for a purchase, let associates better engage, and give managers a better view of customer behavior within the entire retail operation.

Customers can look forward to new product discovery, payment and delivery options, where they can simply tap their phone on products, pay by walking out of the store, and have their purchases soon arrive at their home (drone or no drone). With the new possibilities retail technology is making available, shopping in person while augmented by a data-driven, robust mobile retail app will be every bit as easy as shopping online is today, plus a whole host of promising consumer and retailer benefits.

Mark Kirstein is the senior director of enterprise software for Zebra Technologies, where he works closely with Zebra’s RhoMobile Suite.

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