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Since the rise of ecommerce giants like Amazon and eBay, people have been talking about an impending retail apocalypse. The successive closure of stores like Borders Books & Music, Virgin Megastores, Toys “R” Us and more seem to prove that an apocalypse is well and truly upon us. 

But it’s not. 

While huge in volume, ecommerce sales still only account for a small fraction of total retail sales; in the US, ecommerce sales represented just 13 percent of total sales in 2017. The numbers in Australia are even lower. According to Forrester, as much as 86 percent of retail sales still happen in stores. 


Why technology is critical for a great in-store experience

But here’s the thing: nearly half of all in-store purchases are digitally influenced. People are used to seamless online experiences, and they expect information at their fingertips - in-store and out. When people are in your store, they want:

  • Easy access to product information, reviews, ratings
  • The ability to research and get the best price
  • Loyalty programmes, rewards and discounts
  • Personalised experiences
  • To be able to skip queues, self-checkout or buy with an app on their smartphone
  • The ability to pay with their preferred method

The line between the ‘digital’ and ‘real’ world is gone. If you want to improve your in-store experience and keep customers coming, you need to embrace technology.


Use tech to make checkouts faster and more convenient 

People don’t want to waste their precious time wandering around your store, looking for products, finding information or waiting in long queues. This is where things like mobile technology and sensors and come in. 

Amazon Go, a convenience store that sells grab-and-go food items, has completely removed the traditional checkout and replaced it with an app that shoppers scan on their smartphones as they enter. Cameras and sensors track shoppers and add their purchases to ‘virtual carts’, and their account is charged when they leave. You don’t need to wait in line, or even take out your wallet. Pretty simple. Woolworths was the first Australian retailer to adopt the technology and is now implementing it in their stores across the country. 

In a similar move, fashion retailer Zara has begun trialling self-serve checkouts that don’t require you to scan your items. This is a huge improvement for the in-store experience at Zara, a store known for its long queues


Enable product trial and research with augmented reality 

By making it easier to find, trial and research your products, you can accelerate a person’s path to purchase. And augmented reality (AR) technology is perfect for doing just that.

Digital fitting rooms, currently popping up in stores like Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus and Mango, are a perfect example of how AR can be used to make in-store product research easier. Mirrors fitted with AR tech allow people to ‘try on’ different products without having to queue for a fitting room and get undressed - a process which, according to Michelle Tinsley of Intel, is often frustrating and a barrier to purchase. 

Meanwhile, global retailer Sephora is using augmented reality to give people the ability to ‘try on’ beauty products… without actually trying them on. Instead of using in-store test products and swatching (which can be time consuming and unhygienic) shoppers can use the Sephora Virtual Artist app to see how different colours, products and brands look on them. It’s similar to Charlotte Tilbury’s Magic Mirror and L’Oreal’s Makeup Genius, which allows customers to experiment with blushes and eyeshadows using AR. 

Outside the fashion world, brands like Ikea use augmented reality to let customers see how their products would look in their homes. Other brands have built AR apps that let you try paint colours, scan items to find reviews and promote new products and pop-ups. It just goes to show how powerful AR can be when it comes to driving product trials and research.


Provide support and assistance with helpful robots

More and more, research shows that people still look for support and assistance in-store, even if they do a lot of research online before coming in. They want staff to be able to answer questions and give advice, help them find and recommend products, and know the store’s inventory. This is where robots come in. 

In 2016, home improvement retailer Lowe’s introduced ‘LoweBot’, a multilingual autonomous robot designed to help shoppers find products. Shoppers can search for items by asking LoweBot or typing on its touchscreen, and the bot will guide them to it. LoweBot also performs real-time inventory tracking, which helps keep shelves stocked. 

Side note: innovations like LoweBot are great, but you don’t need to unleash an army of robots to improve your in-store customer service. Simply equipping staff with mobile devices that let them search inventory (a la Warby Parker) or process sales on the floor is a great way to improve the in-store experience. 


Personalise the experience with data, sensors and facial recognition

New research shows that a significant number of people feel that retailers need to do more to offer personalised experiences. But can you create a personalised experience in-store? Yes.

Starbucks, for example, uses geofencing (a fancy word for location-based marketing) to serve coupons, deals and recommendations to customers’ smartphones while they’re in-store. Other retailers, like Target, are using data and facial recognition to serve ads and product recommendations depending on where shoppers are in the store. 

With the right technology, it’s possible to delight and reward people on an individual basis - and boost sales in the process. 


Build your brand with virtual reality

A physical space, like a store or a pop-up, is a great tool for immersing people in your brand and bringing it to life. Especially with the help of virtual reality (VR) technology. 

Used well, VR can capture and hold someone’s attention while in store and encourage them to interact with your brand. Shoe retailer TOMS, for example, gave shoppers VR headsets to immerse them in the brand’s giving programme, One for One. The VR experience took shoppers on a trip through Peru where they could see the impact of the One for One campaign with their own eyes, driving awareness of the campaign and the TOMS brand. 

You can also use VR tech to open up your physical stores and events to the rest of the world. Fashion labels Karen Millen and Jimmy Choo, for example, have created ‘virtual showrooms’ while Australian label We Are Handsome ran a first-ever live VR fashion show.

Experiences like these keep interest (and conversation!) going long after people have left your store. Virtual reality technology is a great way to drive engagement and interest in your brand, and enhance your physical space. 


Apocalypse is a choice 

It’s true. More and more people are shopping online every year. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also shopping in-store, and that the in-store experience doesn’t matter. 

By embracing technology, you can improve your in-store experience and make it easier, more convenient and more delightful. And in a time where shoppers are spoiled for choice, standing out from the crowd with a great in-store experience will translate into better sales.