In a piece published by the Harvard Business Review back in mid-November, Paul Clarke (Chief Technology Officer at Ocado) discussed the widespread and indisputable effects of technology on retail. But he also noted an interesting discrepancy, saying that “after many years spent working for the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer, I am still amazed at how many businesses appear oblivious to the impact these forces will have on them.”
You might think retail and technology have become one and the same — but when you look at what’s coming up in the world of retail tech, it’s clear the blurring of these lines is just getting started. What’s also clear? Retailers who fail to realize the importance of technology will fall way, way behind and might even go under entirely.
In this piece, we’re discussing a few noteworthy technological innovations likely to establish themselves as major players in the industry in the near future. Have a read below.
1) Visual search technology
There’s no doubt we live in a visual world — so it stands to reason that shoppers want to search for things visually rather than through writing. Visual search technology has been around for several years now, but only recently has it become sophisticated enough to warrant mentioning it in the same company as traditional search engines.
Take Slyce, for example. Used by the likes of Urban Outfitters, Best Buy, and Neiman Marcus, Slyce allows users to take pictures of anything around them and then uses its image recognition technology to search the internet for exact or similar finds.
See a shirt you like on a celebrity in a magazine? Snap a picture, and use Slyce to locate the exact item or something like it. Spot a killer sofa at a house party? Push an image through Slyce, and buy it for yourself. Watch the video below to see Slyce in action via Neiman Marcus’s app.
This kind of search technology is the logical next step in a world dominated by visuals and imagery. Along with cracking open a new retail channel, visual search has the potential to enhance customers’ shopping experiences — which is the main reason retailers should keep it in mind.
Pro tip: The potential for visual search technology is immense, so players are already finding niches in the market. If there’s not already, there’ll soon be at least one visual search tech company tailored to your industry, so do some research to figure out which one might work best for you. And don’t underestimate the value of this up-and-coming technology. If it can make your customers’ shopping experiences better, it’s worth paying attention to.
2) Chatbots (artificial intelligence)
The crux of the matter when it comes to artificial intelligence in retail is its potential to radically personalize the customer experience — and as we noted in our 2017 Retail Trends and Predictions piece, “consumers are searching more and more for personalized shopping experiences they can really connect with, so 2017 should see retailers testing new ways to appeal to this desire.”
AI presents several different ways retailers can do this. Right off the bat, let’s note that the visual search technology we discussed above is, in itself, a form of AI. Visual search tech is designed to give users a curated selection of results, eliminating unwanted and irrelevant items and thereby optimizing their search experiences.
Another prominent example of AI in retail? Intelligent chatbots.
We know you might be used to irritating, unsophisticated chatbots, but stick with us here: the versions of the future will take customers’ shopping experiences to a new level entirely.
Using AI technology such as Amazon’s, retailers will be able to create chatbots with conversational and problem-solving skills equal to or surpassing that of human agents. These intelligent chatbots will be able to more accurately tend to your query or issue, and they’ll be so well-developed you probably won’t even register that you’re talking to a machine — which means actual humans will have more time to devote to solving bigger, more complex problems.
But the chatbots you’ll soon start to see more of aren’t just resolving customer service issues; they also have applications for a complete overhaul of the shopping experience.
Imagine hopping onto a department store’s website to shop for a holiday gift. Along with your own personally optimized version of the site that’ll soon be made possible by online learning (another form of AI), you’re greeted by the store’s customized chatbot, which asks if it can help you find anything. You tell the bot what you’re looking for and answer the questions it asks you, and then it gives you a gift guide tailored to the person you’re buying for.
No more endless searching or sifting through product categories — these new chatbots will truly usher in the era of ease and convenience.
Pro tip: If your retail business warrants it (i.e. if you have a big enough customer service department or expect it to grow to a significant size over the next few years), build a chatbot. Some platforms to get you started? Microsoft’s Bot Framework, Facebook’s Bots for Messenger, and Rebot.me.
3) “Just walk out”
A couple of weeks ago, Amazon launched a game-changing project: a grocery store without checkout lines. The announcement of this groundbreaking “just-walk-out” technology had industry pundits simultaneously lauding the service for its single-minded customer focus and bemoaning the “end” of retail as we know it.
But whatever your opinion on Amazon Go and the technology that powers it, there’s no question that it and similar services (i.e. Sam’s Club Scan & Go) have the potential to reshape the landscape of retail.
So why are they such a big deal?
The “just-walk-out” idea (and, to a lesser extent, the “scan-and-go” concept) takes customer-facing operations to the next level — actually eliminating the person “facing” the customer and allowing said customer to complete the entire shopping experience without interacting with another human being.
At Amazon Go, customers use the free Amazon Go app to enter the store. As they shop, sensors detect what they pick up (and what they put back), adding items to their Amazon carts and charging the payment method connected to their Amazon accounts when they’re detected leaving the store.
It’s revolutionary: no wait times, no checkout lines, no stress, and no person-to-person interactions.
Sam’s Club Scan & Go is similar, if not quite as mindblowingly futuristic. Using the Scan & Go app, Sam’s Club customers scan barcodes as they shop. The app puts everything into a virtual cart, and customers then pay from their phones. They exit by showing the e-receipt to the employee at the door.
Then, there’s Panasonic’s new “Reji Robo,” a robot that’ll bag your groceries for you.
So while these and other similar innovations aren’t exactly the same, their overarching concept actually is — the more automation and the less human interaction (at least at the perpetual pain point that is checkout), the better, they seem to be saying.
Pro tip: Think very carefully before you bring technology like “just walk out” or “scan and go” into your business. As many industry experts have said since the announcement of Amazon Go, these types of tech might very well portend a certain doom for the place of actual human employees in retail. But if you operate a larger business and have many stores, something like this might work in your favor. Just exercise caution if and when you decide!
The bottom line
There are, of course, other technological innovations that’ll have major effects on retail in the near future — but we think these three are particularly interesting. How do you feel about them? Do you plan on implementing visual search technology, chatbots, or some iteration of “just walk out” in your retail business? What’s your take on the very idea of “just walk out” technologies? Let us know in the comments!
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