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Real-World Retail Meets the Digital Experience: 6 Trends Sweeping Stores

Rudy Mutter
February 23, 2018

If there were an Oscar for best digital experience, IKEA would win it. Its Space10 arena in Copenhagen a literal lobster tank before the Swedish furniture brand took it over in 2015 has developed some seriously cutting-edge customer technologies.

In barely two years, the company has pushed out a pantheon of innovations. ItsFIRSTdigital shopping tool enables customers to design and customize modular furniture, either from an in-store kiosk or their own computer, while itsIKEA Placeapp helps customers envision how IKEA's furniture would look in true scale at home. Place, an augmented reality tool, follows the debut of IKEA'skitchen experience app, a virtual reality experience that transports customers into a customizable IKEA kitchen.

IKEA might be ahead of the game with respect to digital experiences, but rest assured that other brands are hot on its heels. The following six trends might sound like science fiction, but they're already reshaping the in-store shopping experience:

1. Product customization via opt-in body scanning

Body scanning is a security staple of airports and government facilities. What if retailers were to repurpose the technology to improve the customer experience? That's the thought process behind The Digital Bra, which enables users to scan themselves using a smartphone camera and receive a well-fitting bra made for their unique shape.

Not sure that scanning for undergarments is your style? At the other end of the body, custom shoes are taking off, too. NIKEiD, Wiivv, and Shoes of Prey all offer cosmetic footwear customization. Their ultimate goal? To make ill-fitting footwear a problem of the past.

Expect more and more of these customization vendors to set up shop in real stores. Although it doesn't offer body scanning, Hemster is customizing garments from select stores at Westfield's San Francisco Centre. Walk into Indochino and get measured for a custom suit that you'll never see before it arrives at your door. Someday, body scanning might be a basic service offered by retailers selling everything from shirts to backpacks to wedding rings.

2. Smart, real-time inventory management

Digitization in retail isn't only about what customers can see; it's about making sure customers get what they want when they need it. Achieving that objective, especially for downtown shops with small footprints, can be challenging. Enter logistics software that keeps shelves stocked by alerting inventory management systems when items are removed from shelves.

These smart shelves use RFID tags and corresponding sensors to let employees and the warehouse on the outskirts of town know when a new size is needed on a rack. Grocery giant Kroger is experimenting with this technology at a Kentucky store, where it's also pioneering digital price tags.

Beyond displaying ads and up-to-date prices, digital tags might soon help customers find specific products like gluten-free or vegan foods. They're also likely to usher in dynamic pricing, another tactic for inventory management. Even items like clothing and groceries could soon be priced like Uber rides, discouraging shopping at peak hours and incentivizing it during low periods.

3. Real-world access to online reviews

Who hasn't pulled out their smartphone in a store to look up product reviews? In the future, online reviews could be right there in front of shoppers' faces. Think about how much easier it would be to buy everything from outdoor gear to power tools. Making confident in-store selections might soon be as simple as looking down to read a customer story or watch a product video.

Amazon, for one, is pioneering this in its brick-and-mortar bookstores. Every bibliophile knows how difficult it can be to choose a book, but Amazon's shelf-talkers make it simple. Tomorrow, you might be looking at a grocer's data display overlaid on rows of fish, comparing each in areas from environmental sustainability to mercury content to common culinary applications.

4. Efficiency-boosting kiosks

Getting in and getting out is the name of the game in a busy world, saving shoppers' time and maximizing stores' revenues. No wonder touch-screen kiosks are getting so much attention from retailers. Already, McDonald's customers are "lovin' it" at a kiosk-service location in Las Vegas. Many malls are also incorporating kiosks into their strategic plans, though today's kiosks are a far cry from their full potential.

As kiosks crop up in stores, expect that they'll incorporate everything from AI to VR. For instance, wouldn't it be great to go to The Home Depot, tell a kiosk about an upcoming improvement project, and then receive a shopping list of everything you'll need? And Safeway could install kiosks that share recipes for in-season produce, tempting customers with foods the store needs to sell before they expire. The more helpful kiosks become, the less likely individuals will be to leave stores empty-handed.

5. Augmented and virtual reality experiences

AR and VR have been widely welcomed in gaming circles; why shouldn't retailers make use of them, too? In fact, some already are. Sephora, for example, has developed an app that lets users try on cosmetics without ever putting products on their faces.

But don't expect these experiences to stick to smartphones. Lowe's Holoroom How To is only available at three stores so far, but it's an excellent glimpse of what's to come. In addition to helping customers visualize kitchen and bath renovations, Holoroom may soon help users with all sorts of DIY projects. From paving a driveway to fixing a faucet, VR training could teach customers how to handle any job associated with Lowe's products.

VR might be in its early stages, but its retail applications are limited only by imagination. Who says VR can't help beginning players learn an instrument or provide clothing shoppers with a runway-level experience in a new dress?

6. Checkout-counter demise

Self-checkout might be nice, but wouldn’t it be better to go without checking out at all? Amazon is testing this at its Seattle-based Amazon Go grocery store. Shoppers check in with a smartphone, pick out what they want, and then just walk out. Afterward, their Amazon account is charged for the items they left with.

Frankly, grocery stores might be one of the less exciting applications of this. Imagine trying on a pair of shoes, loving them, and being able to walk out in style. Or what about car dealers? Perhaps they'll one day offer a service where you drive your car onto the lot and a system automatically suggests a trade value. No salespeople needed just a smooth, software-guided transition from one vehicle to the next.

Digital retailers like Amazon are trying to tap the in-store sector because people want so much more than products when they enter a retail store. Even in our digital world, 85 percent of people prefer the in-store experience, largely because the social and experiential aspects are missing online.

That's good news for real-world retailers, but only if they turn to digital technologies before encroachers like Amazon beat them there. Get ahead by building an internal innovation team or by tasking existing innovators with exploring one of the experiential technologies above.

Need help? Yeti's rogue thinking team has gone the distance for companies innovating in retail like Westfield and Google. Reach out for an outside perspective on prototyping your in-store innovation.

Rudy Mutter is a CTO + Founding Partner at Yeti. He found his passion for technology as a youth, spending his childhood developing games and coding websites. Rudy now resides in the Yeti Cave where he architects Yeti’s system and heads up project production.

Follow Rudy on Twitter.

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