A man in a suit pointing at a glowing shopping cart icon placed on top of a world map

Next-generation retail is all about hyperconnectivity, robots and wearables

  • Wearables will enable a future of hands-free shopping
  • Virtual and augmented reality: taking shopping to new levels of convenience
  • Hyperconnectivity will streamline retail and enrich customer experience
  • Will we be shopping at robot-run supermarkets soon?
  • In-store shopping is getting a high-tech upgrade

In the shops of the future, there will be no queues and no check-out staff. We will no longer have to pack our own groceries and we will pay with our wearables. Depending on the type of retail store, shopping will either be about extreme convenience or about the ‘experience’.

What seems like only a short while ago, we witnessed the introduction of the Internet and the smartphone – disruptive technologies that changed the way we live and work on a daily basis. These technological developments paved the way for the things we are about to witness in the retail industry in the next few years – including wearables, virtual and augmented reality, hyperconnectivity and robotics. All of these will play a major role in retail in the next decade.

Wearables will enable a future of hands-free shopping

The number of wearable devices on the market is rapidly increasing and is estimated to reach 650 million by 2020. This means that increasing numbers of people will be wearing smartwatches, activity trackers and other wearables. These all store important information such as personal identification details, banking and payment information as well as details about the wearer’s shopping behaviour. We’ll increasingly see tap-and-go mobile payments, with biometric technologies such as facial recognition, eliminating the need for credit cards, pin codes and signatures. This will enable a customer to walk into a shop, take what he or she needs and then simply walk out. Imagine a future of hands-free shopping in which the entire shopping experience – from browsing to buying – is completed by means of a wearable device. It’s not far away.

An arm with three watches and futuristic glasses on the wrist
The number of wearable devices on the market is rapidly increasing and is estimated to reach 650 million by 2020.

Virtual and augmented reality: taking shopping to new levels of convenience

Let’s say you are planning a summer holiday in Spain with friends. You’ve decided to go camping so you need to go shopping for a tent. You find one that you like, and you and your friend both crawl inside of it to see how many people it sleeps. Nothing unusual about this scenario. Or is there…? Neither of you is anywhere near an outdoor or camping store. In fact, you are in Amsterdam and your friend is in London but thanks to virtual reality, you can meet anywhere, at any time, without leaving the comfort of your home. Virtual reality immerses the user – wearing a VR headset – in a simulated environment. Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world, seen through a tablet or smartphone. Both VR and AR offer retailers as well as online store owners the opportunity to revolutionise the way their customers shop. Whether they want to try on a shirt or see if that designer table fits in their living room, virtual reality and augmented reality are set to vastly improve customer service, eliminate pain points and enable a differentiated, personalised client experience. With online VR applications, the customer would virtually engage with the retailer at home. An e-commerce retailer could for instance develop a 3D environment that recreates the benefits of being in a brick-and-mortar store and enable a customer to try on a dress. With in-store VR and AR applications, the consumer would interact with the technology while shopping at a physical store, let’s say in the dressing room of a clothing boutique. A customer could use a virtual make-up mirror to instantly try different shades of lipstick, instead of having to wait at the beauty products counter.

Virtual reality and augmented reality enable the retailer to personalise the experience of the customer. The sector is hot and VR and AR investment in retail is estimated to reach no less than $30 billion by 2020.

Hyperconnectivity will streamline retail and enrich customer experience

We are already living in a super-connected world, but by 2026, when the Internet of Things is part of the everyday fabric of life, we will be hyperconnected. Everything will be communicating with everything. Not just people communicating with other people but also with devices – and devices talking to other devices. In the retail sector this means that indoor and outdoor digital signage, display cabinets, sensors, smart product tags, wearables, smartphones and other devices will monitor, track, analyse, report, suggest and advise. Retailers’ stock will be tracked and replenished automatically and customers will receive automatic updates on new arrivals and special offers when they are in close proximity of a store they’ve previously shopped at or shown interest in. Advertising and content streamed to connected digital or virtual displays will anticipate and target customers’ needs based on time of day, time of month, season, location and weather conditions. At home, hyperconnectivity means that our appliances will communicate with grocery stores and automatically order the food products that are about to run out. Of course, these groceries will be automatically delivered to your home. Very likely by drone. Hyperconnectivity enables products, devices and appliances to form multidimensional layers, streamlining operations in stores, offices and homes as well as enriching customer experiences.

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Will we be shopping at robot-run supermarkets soon?

Amazon is planning to turn science fiction-type supermarkets into reality. The company recently opened its first ‘Amazon Go’ convenience store in Seattle where customers never have to wait in line. They make use of the Amazon Go app to enter the store, take the products they need and then simply walk out. The automated shopping experience is made possible by a system of sensors, computer vision and deep learning. This enables the sophisticated virtual shopping cart system to keep track of what is taken off and/or placed (back) on the shelves. Apart from well-known brands and staples such as milk and bread, the convenience store also stocks freshly made breakfast, lunch and snacks, as well as meal-kits, handmade chocolates, cheeses and other specialty products. When the customer is done shopping, he or she can simply leave the store, after which his or her Amazon account is debited. The Amazon Go store is currently only available to Amazon staff, but the online retail giant is planning to open it up to the public this year.

A Wall Street Journal report published in December 2016 as well as a recent story in the New York Post claim that Amazon has even bigger plans. The stories mention that the online retail giant is planning to open no less than 2,000 robot-run, two-story supermarkets. Their ground floors offering thousands of products such as meat, vegetables and dairy products and their top floors containing robots picking and bagging the groceries for the customers. These supermarkets could operate with only three to ten human employees. They would either be posted at drive-through windows to hand customers their groceries, help restock shelves or work on the top floor to help the robots pack the groceries and put them on the conveyor belts travelling down to the customers. These robot-run supermarkets would have no queues and no cashiers as customers would make use of an app that detects the groceries they’ve picked. At the doors there would be ‘greeters’ with high-tech sensors to prevent shoplifting and track wayward goods. As we know, using robots isn’t a new thing for Amazon. The company’s warehouses are already full of robots and their plans for using delivery drones are widely known. They have even filed patents for an unmanned blimp to be used as a floating warehouse.

These fascinating robot-supermarket stories are however vehemently denied by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who said that, “whoever the anonymous sources are on this story, they’ve mixed up their meds!” But, where there’s smoke, there usually is fire, so we’ll definitely keep watching that space.

In-store shopping is getting a high-tech upgrade

Retail is undergoing a revolutionary change. Advancements such robotics, wearables, personal recognition, artificial intelligence, consumer analytics and other smart technologies are making shopping more convenient. Customers are now demanding that services and products meet their specific needs. Convenience talks and the customer is in charge. In order for retail to survive and remain vibrant, it will be critical to embrace the new technological developments, even though the sector has traditionally not been very keen to accept disruption. Some examples of retailers adopting the latest smart technology are Nordstrom and Macy’s, who have installed smart fitting rooms. Customers stand in front of a 3D camera that takes the person’s measurements, which are uploaded to an app on their phone. Within the app, the shopper can then mix and match various outfits, both from the comfort of their home and in the store, without ever physically having to try on any clothing. Nordstrom has also integrated social media into their physical stores, encouraging customers to share their favourite Nordstrom goodies on Pinterest and other platforms. Using fun and interactive displays, Nordstrom then showcases the most popular picks throughout their stores. They even created an app that enables their sales assistants to see, in real time, which of their items are most popular on Pinterest, so that they can adjust their inventories.

In-store shopping is not disappearing; It’s getting some much needed upgrades. With technology closing the gap between online and in-store, shopping is becoming more efficient and more enjoyable. And you know what they say: ‘happy customers make happy retailers’.

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