How Wearable Technology is Impacting Retail

Smart watches, connected glasses and even smart contact lenses are gradually making their presence felt in the mass market. These devices are tipped to be the next big thing, capable of running apps that will allow employees or consumers alike to purchase products or interact with them through the blink of an eye or a simple verbal cue.

Wearables, particularly smart watches, are being marketed for consumers with a lot of fanfare, but, surprisingly, it is the applications for employees that are most interesting in terms of their potential impact on industries as wide ranging as retail, logistics, manufacturing and the supply chain.

Great examples of this include Google Glass being used for hands-free order commissioning in warehouses, decentralized fulfillment centers or store locations. Or, alternatively, field service applications, where technicians use Google Glass or similar devices to access manuals, machine parts information or share their view with more experienced colleagues via “eye sharing.”

Due to their design, smart watches have started to gain relevance in the consumer market, but because of their limited distribution with consumers, smart glasses are not ready for many meaningful consumer applications in the mobile shopping context just yet.

To gain large-scale consumer adoption, Google Glass technology needs to be further miniaturized and, ideally, glasses brands, such as Ray-Ban or Warby Parker, would directly embed the Google Glass technology platform in their products. This would enable Google Glass’ computing power and innovative approach to be combined with a stylish design that would appeal to a mass-market consumer base.

This level of integration and the resulting consumer adoption would then make it key for retailers to offer consumer-facing applications for wearables, accessible through normal glasses or, ultimately, contact lenses embedded with smart glass technology.

So where have we got to so far with this disruptive device technology? It largely depends on the applications for which it is being used. For consumer-facing applications like mobile shopping or in-store self-scanning, smart watches like  Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or Motorola’s Moto 360, are proving unobtrusive, easy to wear and operate. This gives them a chance to make some impact on the market. And with the market entry of the long awaited Apple Watch imminent, we can expect to see increased consumer adoption and a lot of interesting consumer-facing retail applications in the near term.

Wearables also have a part to play in interesting new retail applications such as augmented reality (AR), allowing customers to see how a new piece of furniture would look in their virtual living room, for example. Of course, such use cases are easily deployed in selected concept store locations already today. To roll out wearable AR experiences to large audiences, however, retailers will depend on large-scale consumer adoption of smart glasses such as Moverio or Google Glass.

Mobile point of sale, which allows retailers to checkout customers from anywhere in the store on a mobile device, is not so easily enabled through today’s wearables.  The screens on smart watches are too small and checking out a customer through Google Glass (e.g., by recognizing the customer’s face and automatically scanning the customer’s credit card information) in most cases would be rather awkward. For wearable point of sale to become a practical reality further miniaturization of smart glasses or different form factors for smart watches will be required.

Behind the scenes, the picture is different because the design of Google Glass lends itself so well to the hands-free user experience and only needs to be made available to a small number of employees making it ideal for retail inventory and procurement. This is where Glass is showing how much power wearables will have to redefine the way that the retail and supply chain industries work. A great example is in mobile order fulfillment, which can be streamlined and made more efficient by utilizing barcode scanning running on Glass. A so-called pick-by-vision approach enables the warehouse or stock-room worker to retrieve a pick list, move through the warehouse to the proper bin locations – via the most efficient path as indicated on the heads-up display – and scan each item on the list using Glass to verify the picks before collecting all the products and making them ready for dispatch.

As more practical and user-friendly wearable device applications are developed, consumer adoption will increase. It won’t be long before we see sales clerks using smart watches or smart glasses for quick visual references, to check stock inventories or to guide customers to a particular section of a store. Retailers are beginning to realize the cost benefits and efficiencies that this new technology affords in the back office and as every new wearable device or device update appears we move closer and closer to mass market adoption and a flurry of consumer-facing applications.

Samuel Mueller is co-founder and CEO of Scandit.        

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