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The battered high street has been fighting back over the last few years using technology as its weapon of choice. What began as digital signage has now evolved into sophisticated POS platforms that brands and storeowners alike are embracing as they attempt differentiation in their stores.

Storeowners have been pointing to the phenomenon known as showrooming as a root cause of falling sales within their stores. However, a recent survey from Pew Internet seems to indicate that the effect isn’t as disastrous as once thought. Smartphone usage has increased, but Pew conclude: “When asked what happened on the most recent occasion they looked up the price of a product inside a store using their cell phone, 46% of “mobile price matchers” say that they ultimately purchased the product in that store — an 11-point increase from the 35% of such price matchers who said this in 2012.” One of the key drivers behind this behaviour is engaging in-store technologies.

Says Jeff Hastings, CEO, BrightSign, LLC: “One of our customers tested the value of digital signage by comparing the performance of six stores with digital signage displays to six other stores that historically had similar sales for the product tested, but had no displays. The displays didn’t just focus on price and savings, but also educated shoppers about the benefits of using the product in their homes. The customer could see a very clear improvement in sales in the stores that used digital signage.”

The use of digital technology by storeowners must evolve to take the changing attitudes of consumers who are embracing these new technologies in increasing numbers. Indeed, Forrester has stated that connected technology will influence nearly half of all retail sales by 2016. In Germany the practice known as ROBO (Research Online Buy Offline) has taken root and now accounts for 16% of all German retail sales, worth an estimated €88bn according to Syzygy.

A Syzygy whitepaper explained: “Using smartphones as means of connecting with customers as they browse a retail store is also gaining pace. For example, beauty retailer Sephora has placed smart tags on product displays. Once scanned by customer’s smartphone, they display product information and user reviews. Fashion brand Diesel is making shopping a more attractive social proposition with connected mirrors in changing rooms, allowing customers to share the experience with friends on Facebook. Burberry, on the other hand, is using smart augmented reality mirrors in-store, displaying product information when an article is held up to the mirror.”

Technology platforms
Choosing which pieces of technology to use in a store is clearly not an exact science. Julian Burnett, head of IT architecture at John Lewis talked about the concept to ‘fail fast’ at the recent RBTE. Faced with so many technologies to choose from, a level of trial and error is inevitable.

Says Matt Cole, director of marketing and creative at BCS CloudMedia: “In-store media is a great canvas on which to deliver content-rich engagements for consumers. It is far more ‘alive’ than print and can even deliver more than the product itself. When used correctly, the tool can communicate so much information that is easily digested by the consumer. It is the perfect enhancement for ‘showrooming’ and can create the added customer experience required. In the future, we expect to see video kiosks, with access to product specialists 24/7 over video-conferencing, to effectively answer customer questions about the products face-to-face.”

Jim Whyte, senior insights analyst, at global design consultancy Fitch also commented: “We are in the midst of a retail revolution, with technological innovation producing profound and permanent changes to the way people shop. This is creating huge opportunities for new entrants and established players, but with so many rapid and fundamental changes affecting the competitive landscape there is a powerful need for adapting quickly. As Samuel Beckett put it, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

And Richard Cottrell, sales and marketing director, Vista Retail Support makes the point: “The technology to try on designer clothes virtually without having to go into a changing room is fine, but the customer experience will be fatally flawed if the quality fails to live up to the upmarket image created. In-store technologies must enhance the customer experience, not be the experience – otherwise, why not just shop online?”

The fact that every shopper now has a powerful digital device with them at all times in the shape of their smartphone or tablet, offers a whole new level of interactivity within the store environment. Jamus Driscoll, general manager, EMEA at Demandware explained:

“Our research of more than 7,000 consumers worldwide uncovered an influential and valuable segment of shoppers called Digital Divas. They control 69% of the fashion spend around the world. These shoppers are two times more likely to use mobile devices in the store. They use mobile devices not for showrooming, but rather to deepen their relationships with retailers – searching for inventory in other locations and identifying themselves to receive personalize promotions.”

Shopping as experience
Retail stores have a canvas that they can populate with any messages they choose. Technology has proven itself to be a successful brand builder, but retailers have their part to play when communicating brand values to their customers.

Interaction is now possible on a completely different level thanks to digital technologies. Macy’s use digitally tagged garments that react if a smartphone has their app installed. Music sales can also be enhanced. When a customer takes a CD from a shelf, tracks of the album can now be played by a customer’s phone. And gamification has also entered the retail space. Hi-ReSI has developed a retailtainment app for stores stocking Jägermeister where customers challenge other customers to a branded game at tablet stations. And for a fully immersive experience, Audi has created a completely digital showroom.

Says Ali Beer, marketing manager, Europe, Mood: “Technology should always showcase products and services on sale rather than distract from them. If people are spending longer with the gizmos than looking at what you’re trying to sell then the balance is wrong. Recently working with Renault for the launch of the new Clio 4 we used iPads in-store as a way for customers to personalise the design of their car. The customers liked the experience but it was about exploring the options for their purchase and inspiring them to make the car their own – not just playing around on a gadget.”

Clearly understanding why a piece of technology is in a store is critical to its success. “Retailers still seem to be obsessed with digitising stores rather than making them into places that shoppers will want to go when e-commerce is cheap and ubiquitous,” commented Mark Artus, CEO of global branding agency 1HQ. “Ultimately retailers will need to clearly understand what part digital plays in the store experience and how it can enhance and support the choreography of the retail experience throughout the year.”

And touch in a retail environment is also gaining pace, as consumers are now used to this kind of interface, in-store media will increasingly use touch as well. Graham Pow, technology advisor for Retail, PSCo Technical Distribution explained: “Touch is a growing request from retailers and finding the right application is the challenge. There is a limited period of interaction with customers and you need to grab their attention, possibly with some kind of reward, for example discount offers. The willingness of customers to sign-up and exchange their details is becoming more challenging, so the measurement of the audience and relationship building is something that retailers will need to consider. What do they want to capture and how?”

The Syzygy whitepaper concluded: “Using digital POS to create customer value by building on the core strengths of in-store shopping and addressing its key weaknesses is likely to remain an effective short-to-medium term strategy for some time still. In the long run, however, connected digital POS technology combined with the needs and demands of the connected customer means that retail itself will have to become connected. “Connected retail” will create a seamless connected experience across the silos formerly known as channels.”

Retail environments clear must evolve and that evolution will have a technological aspect. However, it is important to not use technology for its own sake. Value must be assigned to any technology that is in use if firstly the investment made by the retailer is to be returned, but secondly – and more importantly – that the consumer can see that using the technology and therefore, visiting the store that includes these platforms, is a worthwhile experience for them.

Visitors to the Sport Chek store in Toronto will find themselves bathed in a sea of technology that the company is testing in what it called its ‘living lab’.

"Our goal with this live lab store is to test and demonstrate the latest in retail technology to deliver the same emotional rush our customers get when they are pursuing the sports and physical activities they love," said Michael Medline, President, FGL Sports. "The store will serve as a conduit between customers and their favourite brands, it offers unparalleled levels of customization and is staffed with the strongest product category experts in the industry."

The lab store includes 140 digital screens, NFC enabled displays that allows customers with suitably equipped smartphones to interact with the images. Visitors will also see a custom installed digital shoe wall from Adidas. Each shoe contains custom digital content when selected, including product features, live twitter feeds, videos, images and interesting facts about athletes' accomplishments while wearing that specific model of shoe.

Personalising the visit to their store is also an important factor. Customers can have their movement or gait measured by the Medical Motion Dynamic Gait Analysis to help them identify the right shoe for their activity. In addition, one of only three Wintersteiger Mercury automated ski and snowboard-tuning machines in Canada is also installed in this store.

Further technologies include a digital community board where customers can view events. An augmented reality app also interfaces with the store via any smartphone that has it installed. Outside the store a five-foot digital projection high-definition screen feeds sporting events to passersby, and Sport Chek can also take remote control of any screen in their store to display custom information – all controlled from their headquarters in Calgary thanks to the underlying high speed broadband connection that the store is equipped with

"We are proud to introduce the Nike Shoe VJ at Sport Chek's retail lab in Toronto. For the first time, we are enabling consumer to express themselves through original artwork that is inspired by the performance attributes of our most innovative products: Nike Free 3.0 and Nike Air Max 2013," said Eric Grimes, General Manager, Nike Canada.

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