We all know that brick-and-mortar retailers need to adopt some of the digital playbook of their online counterparts to stay competitive. But how can retailers actually get the upper hand?
The key—as the Wharton School’s Barbara Kahn pointed out in our previous post on the trends shaping retail—is enhancing the customer experience. And technology has the potential to provide just the boost retailers need to bring together the best of both the online and in-store worlds for an experience online-only retail can’t match.
Two innovations taking off in 2019 point the way forward, demonstrating how retail stores can thrive in the digital age.
Bluetooth in Everything
Little-noticed, that is, by most of the trade show attendees walking past the booth it shared with Avery Dennison. But Wiliot’s mere presence with the label-making giant showed just how seriously industry takes the potential of battery-free Bluetooth. Avery, for example, has joined Samsung, Amazon, and other big players investing tens of millions of dollars in Wiliot.
In essence, the stickers give shoppers a way to “click” on real-world products the same way they can online. For under $1 a sticker, any product can sense when it’s being picked up. That means when a customer takes an item off the store shelf or rack, a smartphone app can display, suggested pairings,care instructions, discounts based on past purchases, and more – which leads to bigger baskets and better-satisfied customers.
Wiliot’s stickers work by harvesting radio frequency energy from nearby cell phones, wi-fi routers, and other sources, to power tiny Bluetooth radios and sensors without batteries. That makes them small, cheap, and long-lived. Wiliot plans to start shipping its battery-free Bluetooth stickers in 2020.
Amazon opened its first Amazon Go store in Seattle last year, spending $1 million on tech that allows shoppers to grab items without checking out.
That kind of money is out of reach for many retailers, but vendors such as Caper are betting big that hassle-free smart checkout will revolutionize shopping, as long as it’s affordable to retailers.
Caper announced early this year that its smart shopping carts, which let customers bypass the checkout lane without requiring retailers to install expensive infrastructure, were already rolling down the aisle at two grocery chains. It plans to expand the list to 150 more in 2019.
The key innovation here is packing the sensors and processing needed for smart checkout into a mobile platform – ie, a customer’s shopping cart. Rather than requiring a retailer to provide sensor coverage for every shelf in the store, Caper lets them deploy a limited number of carts that bring the sensors to the shelf as needed. To make a purchase, customers pass a product in front of the onboard scanner and drop it into the cart, swiping a card at the end of a shopping trip to pay.
Is 2019 the year smart checkout breaks out? Good chance, but probably only in specific locations such as convenience stores where customers neither need nor expect help from a store associate.
Enhancing the Human Experience
For those cases where customers need stellar customer service, they’ll get it where they always have: face-to-face and in person with a knowledgeable sales rep who can help guide them with the attention that only another person can provide. In that area of customer experience, brick-and-mortar retail still has the advantage, and will continue to have it into the foreseeable future.
That’s because creating the right store experience—one that e-commerce can’t provide—isn't just about installing technology for novelty’s sake or because customers expect technology to follow them into every aspect of their lives. It's about using it in ways that actually enhance the human experience. And that includes for store associates as well as customers. Because even if you install the latest shiny toy, you still need to be able to roll it out to customers who will appreciate it, and give team members a reason to care about it.