No matter how easy it has become to shop online, sometimes you just want to visit an actual store. Why? Because the in-store experience matters. And it is improving all the time, thanks to technology.
Once you enter a store, advanced technology may be at work in ways most shoppers might not even realize — through devices that tell retailers when your favorite items are running low and with apps that help you navigate the floor plan. Here are just a few of the cool technological advances starting to happen in brick-and-mortar stores today.
Once used primarily to alert customers to discounts and coupons, beacons — which communicate with your smartphone using Bluetooth — are starting to transform the shopping experience.
Consider a customer who walks into a retail store in search of one item. If a customer has never been in that store before, he or she might wander aimlessly down the aisles, get frustrated, and leave without buying anything. With beacon technology, shoppers can download the retailer's app, opt into beacons, and then easily learn where that item is, as beacons broadcast signals to their mobile device.
"When brands stop marketing to customers in a general way and start treating them as individuals with specific preferences," explains Maya Mikhailov, chief marketing officer and cofounder of the mobile commerce platform GPShopper, "that personalization will make customers more loyal to brands."
In the future, beacons will be able to enhance the experience of loyal customers by, for example, notifying sales associates the moment you walk into your favorite store. "Say a shopper always goes to a store on Wednesdays, but today they go on a Thursday and their favorite sales associate is out," Mikhailov says. "A Bluetooth peer-to-peer experience might allow them to share their shopping list with a sales associate in real time, and now that sales associate can give informed suggestions."
To learn more about beacon technology, click here.
2. Smart shelves
Have you ever picked up an item you thought was on sale, only to get to the register and find out the sale ended yesterday and no one updated the price? Or you head to the store only to realize the shampoo you need is out of stock ... again.
Relying on humans to update pricing or restock items ends up being costly and time-consuming for businesses. In fact, Harvard Business Review found that out-of-stock shelves cost retailers 4% of their annual revenue. That's why major retailers like Whole Foods, Walgreens, and Lowe's have turned to smart-shelf technology to monitor inventory in real time.
With smart shelves, retailers and manufacturers can scan the content of a shelf using embedded sensors and alert store employees when inventory is running low or when a theft has been detected. Retailers can also change prices of products in real time, ensuring accurate pricing for customers and saving time for associates who were once required to monitor those shelves.
Some manufacturers are also hoping to use smart-shelf technology to increase sales of their products by automatically sending shipments to stores when products are running low. Consumers would never have to worry about their favorite products being temporarily out of stock, making it a win-win for customers and retailers.
3. Virtual reality
Many brick-and-mortar stores have begun incorporating virtual reality into their in-store experience. For example, certain Lowe's locations let customers see 3D renderings of future bathroom renovations before they buy anything. Customers can meet with a trained sales representative to pick which items they want to upgrade (such as faucets, a toilet, or a tub). Once they've decided what they want, they step into a 30-by-20 room to see, using a tablet and 3D technology, how those products would look in their bathroom.
Another way retailers are meshing the digital world with the physical world is through experiences such as virtual changing rooms. In Japan, Toshiba developed a way for customers to virtually try on clothes using a digital changing booth. Shoppers simply stand in front of a 3D camera to get their bodies scanned and measured, and the measurements are uploaded to their phone. From there, customers can mix and match outfits, both in the store and from the comfort of their home, to decide which pairings look best with their measurements in mind. They can then go on to purchase items that are guaranteed to fit.
These days, there are plenty of perks to using a retailer's app that go beyond scoping out new products. For starters, consumers can track inventory at their favorite stores with a click of a button. If a store runs out of your shoe size, you can easily search a nearby location to see whether the shoes are in stock using the retailer's app. Another benefit of having a retailer's app is being able to leave your wallet at home.
Customers at chains like Starbucks and Subway can use their apps to pay for purchases and receive special discounts and promotions. National retailers such as Walmart allow consumers to ditch newspaper inserts and instead check weekly deals and pricing from within the store's app. Customers can also see how much they saved by buying specific items at Walmart compared with the store's competitors.
5. Social showrooming
A recent trend with mass retailers is social showrooming. Stores such as Nordstrom have found a great way to integrate social media into their brick-and-mortar locations. The department store encourages followers on social media to pin their favorite Nordstrom items on Pinterest, and the retailer then highlights the most popular picks in fun and interactive displays within the store.
Customers can find popular pinned shoes and handbags throughout the store with a prominent Pinterest tag attached. In addition, Nordstrom created an in-store app that helps sales associates see the most popular items on Pinterest in real time so they can swap out inventory based on demand.
Bringing it all together:
Retailers can expect technology to shape the in-store customer experience for years to come, especially in terms of social media and mobile. According to a Synchrony Financial study, 30% of people surveyed have bought something after seeing it on social media. A strong social media presence helps ensure that brands stay connected to their consumers and, in turn, drive sales both online and offline. And as mobile plays a larger role in consumers' lives, retailers who embrace mobile payments and financing help ensure a smoother in-store shopping experience for their customers.
Mobile tools, such as retail and loyalty applications, can also help to inform retailers of their customers' preferences and needs. This information allows retailers to create a customized in-store shopping experience while also catering to the demands of an increasingly digital age. For example, a mobile app could allow consumers to tag an item they see in a store and have it immediately placed in their online shopping cart. In this case, the consumer benefits from in-person customer service, as well as the convenience of purchasing at home.
In-store shopping is not going away, but it is getting an upgrade. Technology helps close the gap between in-store and online, making shopping more enjoyable for today's customer — and a happy customer is always good for retailers.
For additional insights from Synchrony Financial, click here.