I recently found myself popping in and out of stores in the SoHo section of New York City, and one thing stood out to me – the in-store experience left a lot to be desired. Too many times, I walked into a store only to be greeted with a very passive “Hello,” at which point the store associates turned back to whatever they were doing before. To maximize space, stocked items were often jammed together from floor to ceiling, making me feel like I was in some claustrophobic cave of color palettes. The experience wasn’t enjoyable; in fact, it felt more like an exercise in futility.
Years ago, shoppers might have expected a grumpy sales associate and cluttered sales floor. But as ecommerce and technology have evolved, the consumer has come to expect convenience, both online and in-store. We are increasingly less tolerant of experiences like the one I had in SoHo.
Technology has changed the face of retail. It has affected how consumers shop and interact with brands. Yet, even though ecommerce is growing, a TimeTrade survey revealed that 85% of U.S. consumers say they still prefer to buy from physical stores even if the same products are available online.
In an age where retailers can easily compete with other brands from every corner of the world, customer experience is more important than ever. Technology helped create this expectation for convenience, but it has also provided a means to deliver it. And forward-thinking retailers are really using it to their advantage.
According to BloomReach, 88% of shoppers will use a smartphone to assist them when they shop in a physical store. The first instinct for many retailers is to remove the technology for fear of losing sales to competitors. But smartphone-browsing shoppers will spend 20% more than those not browsing online, according to InMoment. So instead of fretting about what customers are doing on their smartphones, give them something positive to do that enhances the shopping experience.
For example, Rebecca Minkoff’s New York location has smart dressing rooms that allow shoppers to interact with a display screen. They can customize their experience by viewing other sizes or colors of available products, adjust the lighting, request assistance and even save the session information to their personal profile, which they can conveniently store on their smartphone. In this example, the associate is not driving the interaction but rather ensuring the shopper’s requests are met.
Lowes Home Improvement launched the HaloRoom Experience in some of its US stores, where customers can use a mixed reality environment to plan their kitchen remodel, select cabinetry, hardware, countertops and appliances, and view what it will all look like in the end. This technology can eliminate some of the uncertainty many shoppers face when planning their new dream kitchen and help overcome obstacles to purchasing such a high-ticket project.
These are only two examples of how retailers are redefining the shopping experience. Retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Ralph Lauren Kate Spade and Topshop are also offering, or at least testing, in-store technology.
But we’ve only scratched the surface of how in-store technology will revolutionize the in-store experience. As this technology develops and becomes easier to implement and maintain, it will become more commonplace, and retailers who hold back now will be playing catch-up for a long time to come.
Online Shopping Experience
Enhancing the in-person experience is one thing. Enhancing the online experience is another, especially given that users are ultimately in control and can leave or get distracted at a moment’s notice. While online shopping is as convenient for consumers as a few clicks on a smartphone, it has caused headaches for retailers, from increased global competition to processing returns. According to Shotfarm, 42% of customers returned something they bought online. These returns are costing retailers millions each year and can present logistical inventory and accounting nightmares.
But online shopping lends itself to uncertainty in knowing if an article of clothing will fit just right, or a piece of furniture will look good in the living room, which is precisely why consumers expect hassle-free returns. Retailers must look for ways to redefine the online shopping experience to reduce return costs and also provide customers with an experience that encourages customer loyalty.
Some retailers have begun experimenting with a variety of technologies to provide an easier, and more reliable, online shopping experience.
FitAnalytics provides a size recommendation engine that uses only a few pieces of information to recommend the perfect size for clothing. It also lets shoppers know how many people eventually returned the product in that size due to improper fit. This reassurance, much like a collection of customer reviews, can help offset any hesitation the buyer may feel when deciding which size to order.
Fashion Metric also offers a virtual sizer both online and in-store via an app. Online, it allows users to input a few basic measurements, such as waist size for men, and delivers custom suit sizing in just moments. This eliminates the need for tape measures or for customers to keep up with fairly uncommon measurements, like chest size. I own suits but haven’t the slightest idea of my chest size. The entire process took me less than one minute to complete. For a complete suit, that’s pretty remarkable.
Zugara offers a technology that allows a user to virtually try on clothes using their webcam. Customers can select a garment and resize, reposition or change the color of the item they’re “wearing,” giving them a much better idea of how it will look on them.
One complication with these technologies is the disparity of the experience across devices. The shopping experience on a desktop or laptop easily accommodates these webcam features, but those may not be accessible on a smartphone or tablet. While shopping on mobile, from browsing to checkout, has become relatively easy, improving the experience to allow for such technology seems a bit far off yet.
The Good News and The Bad News
At the end of the day, ease of use will be the critical factor in determining whether users will accept or reject shopping technology. If it is easy to use and provides real value to the customer, they will flock to it. If it’s cumbersome or doesn’t significantly improvethe shopping experience, they will quickly move on.
The good and bad news is the same, and that is we have only just begun with this retail technology arms race. Personally, I look forward to one day walking into a store and having everything I know about shopping completely turned upside down.
Greg Zackowicz, is Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst for Bronto Software