What will retail look like in 2014? While shopper robots won’t appear in every store next year, we’re clearly headed toward a new era in retail automation, one that’s sure to completely transform the customer experience.
Just as Ford revolutionized manufacturing by automating the assembly line, automation technologies – coupled with the accelerating integration of the offline and online worlds – will upend the retail industry from top to bottom.
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In 2014, I see two big trends emerging: the rise of the ubiquitous shopper and wide-scale retail automation.
The Ubiquitous Shopper
The ubiquitous shopper is a concept that ties together location-based mobile data, back-end customer systems such as purchase and CRM databases, and customers’ digital and social footprint to create a unique “picture” of each shopper. This portable customer profile creates a more personal shopping experience for each customer – allowing consumers to be “recognized” while in-store much like a modern day mom-and-pop store experience. In the same way cookies and other tracking technology ensure you’re rarely anonymous online, Wi-Fi, GPS and other emerging technologies will do the same thing in-store.
It might look something like this. A customer walks into a store, is immediately recognized, and subsequently gets alerts for personalized promotions based on his past purchase history and social /digital activity. As the shopper walks around the store, Wi-Fi tracking and geo-fencing continue to customize the shopping experience. When the customer checks out, the cashier gets a glimpse of his purchase history and his profile – creating a sense of individualized customer service. When the same customer logs onto the retailer’s site, personalized offers and information will appear online.
The future is clear: one shopping experience across all channels.
Of course, all of this activity would be 100% opt-in. I believe more and more consumers will choose to opt into programs like this – because they result in a superior shopping experience. And every time a customer interacts with a retailer in a store, on its website, or via social media channels, that data will be added to the customer’s ‘profile’ – creating a more accurate picture of a consumer over time.
Already, some forward-thinking omnichannel retailers are experimenting with ubiquitous shopper profiles. For example, Lowe’s keeps customer purchase history centralized, no matter where you purchase a product. Say a customer is purchasing a replacement wire for a weed-whacker at a Lowe’s store. At checkout, the clerk can see a snapshot of his purchase history and may notice he previously bought a different width of wire online. She could mention he may have mistakenly grabbed the wrong size – saving him the headache of getting home only to realize he purchased the wrong item. Awesome.
The rise of the ubiquitous shopper goes hand-in-hand with the second big retail trend of 2014: automation. The majority of US consumers now have smartphones, and they carry their mobile devices with them at all times. So it makes sense retailers would begin to roll out in-store technologies that leverage mobile phones to automate a lot of tasks previously done by humans, such as recommending products, providing more information on products, or helping with store navigation.
For example, it will become commonplace for retailers to offer scannable bar codes, enabling shoppers to immediately get more information on products, instead of trying to locate an associate who may or may not know about the product. Stores will offer location-aware mobile apps that recognize which store a shopper is in, instantly presenting a searchable store layout for easy navigation.
Other stores will roll out in-store tablet ordering kiosks to allow customers to purchase products for immediate pickup at a special self-checkout desk. While a real person may still be necessary to locate the item in the stockroom, that process could soon be automated with a robot and a conveyor belt. What’s more, there’s no reason a store couldn’t use GPS tracking to ‘recognize’ a shopper as soon as he pulls into the store parking lot, and then have his online order waiting at a special checkout desk the moment he arrives. The shopper may also receive an instant coupon redeemable in-store for products he’d be likely to purchase, based on his portable customer profile.
One note: store associates aren’t going away. There will always be a role for humans in the shopping experience. But staff will spend less time on mundane tasks like checkout, restocking, and providing basic product information, and more time acting as ‘brand ambassadors’ to make the store experience fun and engaging.
Perhaps we’re still years away from robots scooting around stores, or drones delivering Amazon packages, but we’ll see the early steps toward this automated future in 2014. Together, the roll out of automation and shopper profiles will create a huge new spectrum of data for retailers to measure and analyze. As shoppers move from home to store and back again, and as they browse and purchase merchandise using in-store automation systems, each interaction becomes a measurable data point that helps retailers paint a more complete picture of each shopper.
In 2014, the distinction between online and offline shopping will blur further. Consumers will find the online experience reflects the store, and vice versa – making shopping a seamless experience no matter where they choose to browse and buy.
Jonathan Levitt is Chief Marketing Officer at OpinionLab.