The new normals in retail: are you keeping up?

Apple Pay

I don’t know too many people who are immune to the charms of retail therapy. Whether in malls or online, they be men or women, there’s always something that each of us enjoys buying. Or at least window shopping. It’s engaging, it’s interactive and it’s social. What’s not to like?

Thanks to technology, every few months we have these fascinating new advances that take our consumerist culture’s favourite sport to the next level. Let’s take a look at the most promising ways in which technology is changing the way we shop.

Beacon Technology Allows Micro-Location-Based Marketing

We’ve been hearing about Bluetooth notifications to shoppers in malls for a few years now, even before smartphones and apps became a part of everyday life. However, usability and adoption rates from a consumer perspective for these technologies were never much to write home about.

This has slowly started changing with the introduction of Beacons in the retail industry. Beacons leverage Bluetooth Low Energy technology found on most smartphones and are far more efficient than GPS or NFC technologies for location-based marketing. These devices can pinpoint precisely which store you are in or which aisle you are close to and serve up extremely targeted offers and deals to your mobile phone.

The iBeacon micro-location system launched by Apple in late 2013 was adapted for Android and other smartphone makers, with a slew of apps and hardware now available to support it.

Besides being present in over 200 Apple Stores around the United States, today iBeacons and their smart, personalised notifications can be found across 800+ Macy’s outlets nationwide, American Eagle stores, Lord and Taylor stores, at the American Airlines terminal in Dallas, Virgin Atlantic airport lounges in Heathrow, London and many more.

Why is this suddenly in the spotlight if similar technologies existed before? Because finally, the consumer seems ready for a service like the iBeacon. According to a survey by Swirl, over 30% of all users who receive an iBeacon notification, make a purchase using the triggered offers contained in it.

iBeacon graph

Another beacon technology provider, inMarket, found that customers interact nearly 20 times more with products promoted via Beacon notifications as compared to others.
Smart Payments Make Shopping Frictionless

Gone are the days of credit cards and cash dominating the payments scene. Users no longer wait to fish out their wallets to make a payment, when simply waving their call phone at the POS system transfers the exact amount that you owe from your bank accounts to the store instantly.

The payments industry has jumped on board the NFC (near field communications) bandwagon and has introduced a variety of payment methods that eliminate the need for a physical card or cash. Accenture’s study on payment mechanisms shows that over 40% of users have used mobile phones to make payments in 2014. Millennials are early adopters with over half of them having used mobile payments for their shopping.

Smart payments come in many shapes and sizes. Whether you prefer to pay using a digital wallet such as PayPal or mobile wallets like Google Wallet or Apple Pay, via social media with apps like SnapCash and Venmo, or even by transferring bitcoins in physical stores, your choices are endless. Not only are these methods more convenient, they are also a lot more secure as users store their payment data in encrypted form on these apps. No personally identifying payment information (credit card number, bank account details etc.) is passed on to the retailer at the time of purchase, thus eliminating the chances of payment fraud.

Digital wallets like PayPal, Google Wallet and the Apple Passbook which integrates with Apple Pay also offer users discounts, coupons and limited period deals straight to their mobile handsets, based on their buying behavior.

Whether it is paying with a Pebble smartwatch at an NFC enabled till, having a personal POS machine on your table at Chili’s restaurants, or “scanning as you shop” with a handheld gadget at Tesco’s, retail checkouts and payments are going to become a lot more interesting.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Bring Alive Ecommerce

Users sitting in any corner of the planet can buy anything they set their hearts on, thanks to the now established ecommerce industry. What’s more, sellers can even set up ecommerce stores straight from the cloud at zero cost with platforms such as PrestaShop. But what about that sorely missed touch and feel of a real store?

Enter Virtual Reality

Ecommerce stores like Warby Parker allow users to upload their pictures on the Warby Parker site, and virtually try on as many pairs of glasses as they desire. Travel giant Thomas Cook has launched virtual reality zones in its concept stores where would-be travelers can put on an Oculus Rift and experience the destinations and resorts that they would like to book via Thomas Cook.

Then there is China’s online grocer Yihaodian, which opened 1000 3D virtual reality stores across China in late 2012. These virtual stores were located in parking lots, parks and public squares where shoppers could buy groceries inside a virtual supermarket using a specially designed mobile app.

The experiment turned out to be a smash hit with 17% growth in revenues in just three months.

Fresh out of the oven is Amazon’s newly launched Augmented Reality app, Amazon Flow. Amazon Flow allows users to scan any item they want with their phone camera and offers detailed information about the item instantly. The app then goes on to show the item’s price and availability on Amazon and the user can buy the item right away using Flow. Besides clicking a picture of the product users can also scan a barcode, QR code whatever. So the next time you run out of ketchup, just point your phone at that empty bottle and order a new one in seconds.

Wrapping Up

The retail industry may employ one in every ten Americans, but the wave of new retail technologies holds the potential to impact every single one of us who has ever shopped at a supermarket. As we get set to magnify our national obsession with shopping manifold, I’m going to find a safe place to hide my wallet (and phone). Happy shopping!

Rohan Ayyar


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