In the past few years, retail has been heavily disrupted by the integration of information technologies. Yet, a report by the World Economic Forum and Accenture predicts that the retail landscape is going to change more in the next 10 years than it has done in the past 40 years.
Consumer needs are evolving, with a growing demand for meaningful experiences and easily accessible, transparent information about price and quality anywhere, anytime.
Retail experiences are going through a revival as both brick-and-mortar stores and eCommerce sites adopt advanced tech that is responding to these needs and transform the customer journey.
We asked top retail experts to share what were the most exciting technologies that will shape the retail customer experience over the next few years, and why.
Let’s take a look at their most important predictions.
1. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Many online businesses are already using some form of Artificial Intelligence (AI). This tech can increase revenues by helping retailers better understand consumers, generate new sales and enhance the customer experience in several ways. Gartner identified this tech as the top technology trend for 2017, and predicts that, by 2020, 85% of interaction between customers and retailers will be through AI.
So, how do our experts think AI is going to lead the retail transformation?
a) Better understand consumers
Consumer insight is going to get richer and much more accurate with AI.
“Artificial Intelligence has the potential to improve the way retailers interact with their customers, resulting in better shopping experiences. With AI, brands can get a closer look into consumer behaviors, wants, needs, and so on.” — Klaudia Tirico, Retail Touchpoints
By understanding social profiles and consumer behavior, paired with changing contextual information, retailers are able to retrieve information on a much more granular level which is specific to each individual.
“Through artificial intelligence, retailers will be able to better forecast consumer decisions, purchases and more - ultimately helping to strengthen the retail space and overall management of retail efforts.” — Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle, Retail Minded
“As more retailers adopt machine learning solutions for both on-site search and product recommendations, they can further understand consumer shopping tendencies and cater to them in a more convenient, faster fashion. Given how important time-to-checkout has become even on the e-Commerce side, retailers should take the development of machine learning seriously in 2017 and beyond.” — Glenn Taylor, Retail Touchpoints
b) Offer advanced personalization
Thanks to AI, retailers can take personalization to the next level. Brands can analyze behavioral and demographic data from consumer interactions to continuously uncover user preferences and be able to know what kind of content or products they would want to see.
This way, retailers are able to deliver custom recommendations to the right people at the right time, in an automated way.
“I think customization technology is going to be big — when you walk by your favorite store for example, you'll receive a message on your mobile device with a customized message, such as an offer or a product introduction. I'm also seeing loyalty-targeted marketing in some grocery and drug stores, which is quite interesting [...]” — Craig Patterson, Retail Insider
Another reason why retailers should be paying close attention to AI is that this technology is able to predict what a customer wants. Machines can learn enough from a user’s interactions with a brand to offer product recommendations based on previous purchases or what they search for.
“Siri and the like are creating a scenario in which the technology is making the suggestions and providing the information to the shopper. Retailers and brands need to figure out how to get the right information into the virtual hands of these AI tools, so when a shopper asks Siri where to find the best pasta sauce or running shoes, Siri has the information to potentially suggest their brand.” — Debbie Hauss, Retail Touchpoints
c) Enable visual search for better shopping experiences
AI-powered Visual Search lets users take a picture of something they see and instantly get information about where to purchase that item, or where to find visually similar products.
“Visual search will be a boon to shoppers who see a "must-have" outfit or item on InstaSnapBook — and an even bigger boon to the brands that figure out how to channel those visual searches to their sites.” — Adam Blair, Retail Touchpoints
It can make the ‘whole world shoppable’ without having to think of what the exact name of a specific style is or do a time-consuming search through categories, which is very relevant to today’s shoppers, especially for Millennials who seek instant gratification.
Plus, it can also help retailers with automated catalog management, saving time, costs and avoiding human errors.
“The retailer is taking consumers' real-life experiences and connecting them seamlessly to its inventory.
Rather than typing in a slew of keywords and hoping they find a product, consumers get instant access to the most similar products. Urban Outfitters has rolled out a similar capability.
I feel like the visual search movement speaks to consumers' demands for immediate, mobile access to information. It also aligns with the fact that consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z’ers, want brands to integrate their products into the context of their lives via more authentic imagery and browsing experiences, rather than looking at staged photo shoots and product pages.” — Alicia Esposito, Retail Touchpoints
d) Drive conversations via chatbots, around the clock
“An exciting technology that has come out of AI is virtual chatbots, which have the ability to boost sales and conversions and drive customer loyalty. Retailers such as Nordstrom, Sephora and 1-800-Flowers.com have leveraged this technology to share product recommendations, process orders and send shipping information.
Chatbots can streamline the buying journey and provide customer service at the customer's leisure, without having to hop on the phone and wait on hold until a representative is available.” — Klaudia Tirico, Retail Touchpoints
These digital assistants are slowly taking over other channels of communication between retailers and customers, like calls and emails. Messenger chatbots that serve customer support purposes are not only useful for users to get real-time, one-on-one answers from a brand.
They also capture feedback and reviews through these conversations, and create opportunities to recommend products and services for purchase.
“Chatbot apps are the future of the online customer service providing users not only with information but becoming a reliable personal assistant. The trend which involves creating "personal shopper apps" is a great example which deserves the attention of every retail business owner.” — Valeriia Timokhina, Eastern Peak
2. Augmented Reality
While 2016 saw the ‘coming of age’ of Augmented Reality (AR), experts predict that it will continue to grow over the next few years, further disrupting the retail scene.
“Augmented reality integrates technology and manpower to create time-saving innovations such as the virtual fitting room, which is poised to disrupt retail as we know it, by saving customers time and helping store associates hone in on potential sales.” — Jasmine Glasheen, Retail Minded
Some may mistake it for a gimmick, but AR can actually do a lot for retail. Thanks to smartphone penetration, the tech has become available to all consumers, who can virtually try clothes on, visualize items at home, and engage in interactive experiences with products in any setting.
“Augmented reality that realistically shows how a new couch, lamp or desk will look in a shopper's own living room could transform furniture retailing, turning it into a mobile-first proposition for a large swath of consumers.” — Adam Blair, Retail Touchpoints
“Improving the UX of retail apps with augmented reality features will make online shopping much more convenient and popular, removing many of today’s problems that prevent users from buying stuff online.” — Valeriia Timokhina, Eastern Peak
3. Drone delivery
Even though this area of retail tech still faces regulatory issues that hinder its scalability, there has been a growing demand for personal and commercial use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects more than 2.5m commercial drones to be shipped in the US in 2017.
“Drones are hands down the most exciting technology when it comes the retail customer experience. [...] When it comes to ordering the perfect outfit online (where most shopping is done) customers want the clothes right there and then. Drones will soon be able to deliver packages with an hour - almost instant gratification. What's more exciting than that?” — Carissa Lintao, The Next Web
Remember that technology has to feel useful and meaningful
It is important to bear in mind that adopting any kind of retail tech just because it is ‘hot’ can turn out to be a hit and miss if it’s not combined with careful strategic planning.
“New technologies can be exciting, but brands and retailers shouldn't dive right in just because there's a shiny new toy in front of them. Retailers must think about their objectives and the challenges they are trying to solve before opening their wallets.” — Klaudia Tirico, Retail Touchpoints
The most important advice that companies can get is to make sure that technology is going to add value to the shopping experience, for example, when spicing up the store environment.
“While technology has the promise to improve the shopping experience, it is still artificial. The most exciting technology is a well trained retail salesperson hired for their ability to connect with a stranger and sell the merchandise at full price - with an add on.”— Bob Phibbs, Retail Doc
The most successful executions of retail tech don’t try to completely change customers’ existing preferences, but think about how to enhance the experience, connect different channels and streamline processes.
For example, AI can replicate advice by an expert store assistant when shopping online to recommend you similar products, image recognition can help you scan a product and take you to an online store in a second, while unique Augmented and Virtual Reality experiences can attract more footfall to stores.
Wrapping it up
Research by Boston Retail Partners predicts that 45% of retailers will start using technologies like Artificial Intelligence within the next three years in order to enhance customer experience.
Each of the technologies mentioned in this post can add value to a brand’s touchpoints in different ways. So, while it is important not to jump into a trend just for the sake of it, retailers must adapt their shopping experience strategy if they want to keep up with the changing retail landscape.
Meet the retail experts participating in this roundup
Adam Blair, Executive Editor at Retail TouchPoints
Alicia Esposito, Content Strategist at Retail TouchPoints
Bob Phibbs, Owner at The Retail Doctor
Carissa Lintao, Author at The Next Web
Craig Patterson, Editor-in-Chief & Founder at Retail Insider
|Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief at Retail TouchPoints|
|Glenn Taylor, Senior Editor at Retail TouchPoints|
|Jasmine Glasheen, Generational Marketer at Retail Minded|
|Klaudia Tirico, Features Editor at Retail TouchPoints|
|Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle, Founder & Editorial Director at Retail Minded|
|Valeriia Timokhina, Marketing Manager at Eastern Peak|
Image credits: Venture Beat, Retail TouchPoints, Catchoom Stock, and Pexels.