Conference review: Wired Retail 2017

Knitting together digital technology and connectivity with their physical stores continues to be at the top of traditional retailers’ agendas. At the recent Wired Retail conference in London there was no escaping the fact this is an issue that retailers continue to grapple with as new technology solutions constantly emerge around them.

Build and test for the future
For John Lewis, one of the ways it has been addressing this issue is through the setting up of a lab, Room Y, which enables it to build bespoke solutions such as its Sofa Station that can be quickly pushed out to stores for testing.

Speaking at Wired Retail, John Vary, a futurologist at John Lewis, told delegates: “I said to Paul Coby [CIO at John Lewis] that I wanted a cupboard in the basement to house a lab where we could build things that are not available off-the-shelf.”

Among the things that have emerged from this lab are: Sofa Studio that mixes 3D scale models of sofas and swatches of fabrics that use RFID to display tailored images of upholstered seating on-screen; a chatbot that was built for Valentine’s Day; and a digital staircase that was constructed for the new Leeds store.

With Vary’s new role as a futurologist at John Lewis he is looking at what technologies might be around some years from now. “We’re looking at technology today and seeing what things like AI might look like in 2030,” he says. “What challenges do I need to put in front of the company?”

Building the store of the future
Farfetch is also focusing on how technology fits in with physical stores and is experimenting with its Browns outlet in central London, from where the findings will be rolled out to the many boutiques around the world that use its platform.

Such endeavours come under the umbrella of the company’s ‘Store of the Future’ project that seeks to seamlessly link inventory and customer data across stores and digital through the Farfetch app, which also enables shoppers to be identified when they are not just online but also when they enter stores.

Sandrine Deveaux, MD of Store of the Future at Farfetch, says: “The Store of the Future gives seamless access to inventory [across channels]. It provides for global seamless interactions of the physical store inventory to global customers. We’re connecting the digital experience to the physical experience with the ‘offline cookie’, which provides the in-store experience of the future and visibility [to retailers] of what is happening in their stores.”

Seamless payments
The Store of the Future solution uses various in-store technologies – something that is becoming an increasingly important element of the physical shopping experience for younger consumers, according to Karen Pepper, head of UK at Amazon Pay, who notes: “Millennials want shops that contain technology but they want it to operate seamlessly alongside online.”

This extends to payments – with people now wanting to use the same process regardless of the channel through which they are purchasing goods. Pepper says 35 per cent of cart abandonment is down to sites wanting customers to create accounts. Forgetting passwords is also an issue.

To have a single method of payment clearly has plenty of appeal and Pepper says Amazon Pay has the advantage of simply drawing on the shoppers’ Amazon credentials to enable payment to be seamlessly completed on other retailers’ sites as well as in their stores.

AR and VR experimentation
Matthew Drinkwater, head of fashion innovation at London College of Fashion (LCF), recognises the challenge of technology being brought into stores and comments on the way augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) has so far been used: “It has such a terrible reputation when you put it into stores.”

This is down to how the rather insular nature of people wearing goggles jars compares with the rest of the in-store experience. Working on narrowing the gap between fashion and technology and how it can then be applied within the physical space is a focus for Drinkwater and the LCF, he says.

Much experimentation has taken place using algorithms to turn flat images into 3D models and to enable these to move. “We did a proof of concept for Mulberry and we’re getting close to what is required. When you’ve got a 3D model then you can do extraordinary things for brands,” he explains.

At London Fashion Week, Microsoft’s Hololens was used and LCF is due to visit Pinewood Studios to do some motion capture, which all combines to move things closer to the standards that luxury brands demand. “With the Apple X there is lots of excitement about AR, where you can place virtual objects in the real world environment. The platform AR creates will be available to everybody. It will create some amazing things,” points out Drinkwater.

AI improving the customer experience
Craig O’Donnell, CIO at Land Securities, says research shows that as many as 100 million consumers will be shopping using AR technology by 2020, as “customers demand experiential shopping and many retailers experiment with the technology and [improving the] customer experience”.

Just as with AR and VR the other buzzword that is prevalent in the industry today is artificial intelligence (AI). It is a key part of the developments of CommonSense Robotics, a company that is leveraging AI and robotics to create the concept of micro-fulfilment.

Elram Goren, CEO of CommonSense Robotics, says this brings on-demand logistics – with sub-one-hour delivery – to retailers. By automating the logistics process he argues it is possible to bring small footprint fulfilment warehouses close to consumers in cities. “We’re developing the technology to bring these operations into cities on small plots that are highly complex and highly automated,” says Goren.

For Graham Cooke, CEO of Qubit, much has been said about AI technology but there is still little tangible evidence of it out there in the marketplace performing intelligent functions. Qubit has sought to address this with the launch of its Aura solution that it has been testing with retailers ColourPop and Wolf & Badger, Cooke notes.

With every customer viewing the same website retailers have argued that they have lots of products but customers cannot see many of them. By using AI to tailor the experience for individual customers, using multiple data points, the experience is dramatically improved and revenue per visitor can be increased 3-4 per cent, according to Cooke.

“Websites have been based on catalogues and run on desktops, but now we have mobile devices and AI is bridging the gap from catalogues to a more immersive experience [on mobile]. It’s providing the discovery aspect,” suggests Cooke.

Emergence of discovery online
Martin Harbech, director of commerce at Facebook, says discovery is becoming an increasingly important factor for brands and retailers in order to gain visibility on digital channels: “Over the last five years the mattress industry has been disrupted by brands invading the sector. The same thing is happening in all areas of retail, with the disruption of mundane product categories. This is all built on discovery, which has always been part of [physical] retail.”

Discovery revolves around the goods finding the customer rather than the other way around. “The best retailers do not wait for purchasing intent. They find the customers and create purchase intent. Over the last 10 years we have made the Facebook newsfeed the world’s most advanced discovery engine. It is discovery on a massive scale,” argues Harbech.

It seems that it is not only customers who are on a voyage of greater discovery when out shopping, because retailers are also finding that they are discovering many new things as they push forward with adopting new technologies.

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