Hi-Tech Next Gen Stores Balance Convenience and In-Store Experience
Photo courtesy of LEGO
Shoppers across all retail verticals crave convenience—and retailers are responding. Driven in part by pandemic urgency, technologies like BOPIS and contactless payment are here to stay.
But, as people gradually return to pre-pandemic shopping habits and venture back to brick-and-mortar stores, they also crave the high-touch, personalized, in-store experience they’ve missed.
The most successful next-generation stores will employ the latest technologies to deliver both convenience and customer experience.
The challenge for retailers is finding the right balance for their particular brand, and building the right digital infrastructure of connectivity, security and application performance to support their chosen technology portfolio.
Delivering on convenience
The pandemic changed the way people shop. Indications are that change may be permanent, with most shoppers reporting their intention to continue to use new shopping methods, like curbside pickup and delivery, even as retail locations resume more normal operations.
Retailers are attempting to adjust to new customer behaviors by maximizing the value of their time spent in-store and meeting demand for convenience and efficiency.
A recent industry report by WBR Insights Future Stores and Hughes Network Systems found that the majority of retailers plan to make services like BOPIS (70%), ship from store (68%) and contactless checkout (53%) permanent fixtures in their long-term strategies.
In the world of retail, these baseline conveniences make up the so-called “new normal”—they are table stakes for the post-pandemic retail game.
Some retailers may, however, wish to up the ante on convenience to underscore their brand promise to customers. Target, for instance, has leaned into convenience to deliver on a core brand value of “ease” for customers.
Target takes BOPIS one step further and equips its mobile app with geofencing to detect when a customer is nearby and have orders ready to go. Even before the pandemic, the mega-retailer was planning smaller footprint convenience stores.
And, through partnerships, Target is creating “store in store” experiences with brands like Ulta Beauty, Apple and Disney to create a truly one-stop shop.
Retailers like Target, which prioritize their customers’ desire for convenience, may invest in other hybrid approaches to digital and in-store experience. Innovations include the ability to pre-reserve a fitting room or hold a video or chat session with a store employee to see a product or ask questions in advance of their visit.
To make the customer’s visit to the store worthwhile, many stores enable customers to order an out-of-stock item for delivery at home or to the store before they walk out the door.
Niketown allows customers to reserve time for express shopping using their website or app. At the appointed time, a customer can visit the store and share a list of required items to be fulfilled by a store employee.
Global jewelry retailer Pandora similarly pre-books appointments and eliminates lines for those who don’t have an appointment by allowing customers to join a “virtual queue” via QR code that alerts shoppers of their turn to shop via text.
Creating an immersive in-store experience
While some retailers are raising the stakes on convenience—other brands are doubling down on technologies to offer a more engaging and personalized in-store experience.
These brands recognize that their target customer values the personal connection and brand culture touchpoints only possible during a physical store visit.
In fact, the same WBR report that quantified investment inconvenience found that 38% of retail respondents plan to deploy innovative technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to create novel experiences for shoppers, while 53% of operators plan to invest in new digital signage and interactive kiosks.
Aligning retail tech to brand values takes many forms. For Lego—which promotes imagination, creativity and fun—that means incorporating augmented reality. In its flagship store, the Lego Brick lab encourages shoppers to build real-world Lego models from bricks, then bring them to life virtually.
M&M’s, another brand that cultivates affinity with young consumers, has introduced a new in-store video experience that lets visitors take photos or record themselves, adding M&M imagery and music. The stores also feature “magic mirrors” that transform shoppers into M&M candy characters.
Connected mirror technology levels up the customer experience at women’s fashion retailer Rebecca Minkoff as well. Dressing room smart mirrors use RFID tags to suggest additional items that complete or compliment a shopper’s look. Customers can also customize lighting or even order a drink from a sales associate through the mirror.
Brands looking to increase customer loyalty and engagement are encouraging social media conversations and sharing by creating in-store opportunities to engage both physically and virtually.
Some retailers have physical backdrops designed for the perfect Instagram selfie to encourage social sharing from the store. Others are incorporating social media walls, in-store digital displays that aggregate user-generated social content, to make shoppers feel like brand influencers.
Not all tech driving the high-touch, personalized shopping experience is front-of-house. For some retailers, including many luxury brands, the store employee is still the primary driver of an exceptional in-store experience.
Retail employees are still the chief representatives of brand culture, and a store associate who can provide expert advice, in-depth knowledge of product selection and make customers feel special requires good training.
Many retailers are turning to technology for improved and ongoing employee training and introducing breakroom TV to keep employees engaged and informed on the latest products to maintain the art of customer service and earn customer loyalty.
Matching your digital infrastructure to your vision
There is no “right” direction for store-of-the-future technology—brands must make choices based on their values and what their core customers desire and expect.
But whatever path retailers choose—whether seamless omnichannel convenience or personalized, immersive experiences—they will need a robust and reliable digital infrastructure. In practice, nearly 60% of retailers upgraded their in-store network systems to support employees, customers and newly deployed in-store technologies in the past year.
The high-tech store of the future demands a lot from the network. Supporting convenience and in-store experiences requires seamless and efficient access to cloud services like customer analytics and AI-driven loyalty programs, advanced sensing systems and IoT devices, mobile apps, guest Wi-Fi and more without interfering with critical business transactions like point of sale or inventory management.
Reliable, always-on connectivity at every site is essential to deliver the desired customer experience and reap the benefits of tech investments like interactive kiosks, augmented and virtual reality systems and integrated order and inventory systems that enable BOPIS and curbside delivery. The network can also offer vital customer insights through application and data analytics to help customize the shopping experience. For instance, retailers can target shoppers with sales or promotions via their loyalty app if the customer connects with the store Wi-Fi.
Improving the digital infrastructure also means fortifying against security threats. The more technologies stores introduce, and the greater number of devices on the network, the larger the cyberattack surface becomes.
Optimizing a retail network means securing guest Internet access, protecting the increased traffic to and from the cloud, and safeguarding point-of-sale and other devices.
Retailers embracing frictionless checkout to enhance convenience may want to expand the point-of-sale security, fortifying it by including mobile pay and possibly even two-factor authentication.
A forward-looking retailer doesn’t need to implement every newly available technology. Rather, it must choose brand-relevant options to incorporate into its next-gen store roadmap.
Building the store of the future is rarely a complete overhaul of an existing technology stack and secure connectivity infrastructure, but rather an evolution that brings in new, compatible features that complement the brand vision.
A thoughtful, stepwise approach begins with a careful examination of available technologies, assessing what features and benefits will most resonate with the brand’s customer base, and analyzing the existing network infrastructure, security, and application performance needs.
Then, the retailer can implement the technologies that best support its future plans and customer experience goals