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Jen Smith of Maxus: life beyond the Beacon – what’s next in store for retail tech?

Today’s consumer is more switched on than ever – both savvy in terms of products and pricing and also quite literally connected throughout the shopping experience to a wealth of digital information readily available via their smartphone.

During a recession so severe it killed off established retailers such as Jessops and brought others to their knees – including HMV, Habitat and Blockbuster – improved e-commerce and home delivery services collided with tough market conditions to shift purchasing behaviour increasingly online.

People are, of course, still shopping – but increasingly, we find that they crave a more enhanced and meaningful retail experience, one that seamlessly bridges the gap between the online and offline worlds.

This presents an important opportunity for retailers and brands alike to crank up the role they play in purchase decision making, and a flood of emerging retail-focused technology promises tempting ways to allure the connected consumer and challenge the notion of ‘broken’ physical retail space.

Some retailers are already exploring the concept, taking the first steps to becoming more experiential, sensorial – becoming the embodiment of their brand rather than the physical shell in which products are sold. Apple has consistently broken ground here, its stores serving as modern-day cathedrals to technology, even securing tourist attraction status.

A recent retail tech innovation, iBeacon, has captured a lot of attention in the retail world in the past 12 months. At first thought, the idea of targeting offers to shoppers based on their real-time, in-store location sounds a clear win-win. In reality, abusing beacons runs the risk of endlessly pinging the shopper who above all wants to get in, grab their shopping list items and get out as fast as possible.

Where Beacons become useful – and this applies to all emerging tech in the retail space – is when they make life more convenient for the shopper. Why shouldn’t contactless Bluetooth payments make queue management more effective; why can’t the reams of paper offers thrust into consumers’ hands at checkouts be downloaded directly to mobile apps?

Advances in retail tech are happening quickly. But retailers and advertisers facing up to incredible pressure on margins quite rightly have to invest cannily. More than half of branded websites are still, incredibly, not optimised for mobile; presenting a strong case for getting the basics of existing technology perfected first and foremost. There is little point in gathering reams of data if the website isn’t optimised to work on a mobile device. And if you can’t feed the data you have collected into a CRM programme so that beacons can recognise customers when they enter the store, then why bother?

Although there is a great buzz right now, with high interest and excitement and lots of testing and learning taking place in individual stores, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. In-store tech is just one piece of a complete puzzle that people running the business need to understand. It doesn’t exist in isolation.

Mention ‘digital or ‘automation’ to some clients and they automatically think quicker and cheaper. The reality is that technology creates a richer rather than leaner offer. What you are actually getting is more of everything. Much of the current innovation in technology is so easy to grasp that it masks the hard work and investment required to maximise the benefits. In fact, you’re generating more data, more learning, more connection points and more levers to pull across the marketing machine.

For example L’Oreal’s Magic Mirror serves as a ‘beauty assistant in a box’, using interactive facial analysis to recognise skin tone and colouring. It also presents a number of suitable looks using available products. What is truly interesting here is how much invaluable customer data you can capture, and how you can then apply that across communications.

Ultimately, the sheer variety of rapidly emerging technology on trial makes it tricky to predict exactly which bits of kit will succeed. One thing we can be certain of is that those that do gain traction in years to come will be those that benefit the customer more than the brand or retailer.

From Tesco’s Clubcard to ‘Shopper Assist’ mirrors offering product information and complementary suggestions, the emphasis with winning ideas is always on building customer relationships by being helpful. Every day I’m presented with a new piece of tech or hardware that is undeniably brilliant in its capability, but I always come back to the average mother going to the supermarket. That piece of tech that is relevant to her, that makes her experience richer and simpler – now.

Which is utter genius.

unnamed1-200x200Jen Smith, is head of planning at WPP media agency Maxus.

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