All I want for Christmas is a virtual twin

Is anyone happy to predict what might be coming in 2017?  I suspect not. 2016 was full of unexpected surprises and is best epitomized by the new Toblerone, it still has peaks, but the gaps between them are bigger and more divisive, just like our politicians.

The nation is split over which retailer has made the best Christmas TV spot, M&S or Aldi, but it has not stopped shoppers from shopping. John Lewis might not have made the best TV ad for the festive season, but it did have the biggest ever week in its trading history this Black Friday. And the only prediction I can safely make for 2017 is that the retail event will be back next year. Black Friday has usurped the traditional ‘must have toys’ list and is fast becoming the official start of the festive shopping season spree. Next year we will see greater competition for shoppers and greater focus on their three budgets; time, money and frustration.

For the first time this year I received digital calendar invites for Black Friday events. Intrusive yes, but an indication of how far retailers will go to cut through the promotional clutter to get time with the WIGIG conscious shopper.

This Black Friday also saw a 12% rise in online spending according to retail analysts IMRG. Shoppers will always want value, but that is no longer simply price x quality. They want simplicity and convenience and at the moment that is being delivered (literally) by going online.

Of course, there are many retailers who still understand the vital role of physical stores as environments where shoppers can touch, feel and experience their product assortment and many more that will complain that their stores have simply become showrooms. But the online world is changing, today all the talk might be of the ‘internet of things’ but it is rapidly becoming about experience. The Internet of Experience.

VR and AR are two technologies that people are predicting will transform the shopping experience and we have seen many retailers experiment with solutions in 2016. John Lewis is bringing its Christmas TV story to life in store right now with VR, whilst DS Automobiles showcased a solution at the 2016 Geneva Auto Show which could have a more everyday application in the car buying process. I have no doubt that this will continue to evolve and the virtual showroom will become a permanent fixture both online and in-store for many retailers.

img_0057But perhaps the most interesting application of VR for retailers is not in enriching customer experience, but in helping them in their internal process. There are more and more retailers and brand owners that have VR cave solutions to help packaging design and merchandising programs to deliver the perfect shelf and perfect shop. The next generation of technology will mean this no longer has to be a linear process based on an idealised store layout, instead key stakeholders will be able to come together and collaborate around a virtual twin of an actual store and do that in real time by connecting it to digital shelf labels in a physical store, as is possible with the 3DEXPERIENCE Twin. I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.

I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.

The secret of retail tech innovation? Never forget the customer

First published by Retail Week on 4th August 2016

While I spend most of my working life looking to the future, I’m not afraid to take inspiration from the past.

I still occasionally dance around to my 1980s alternative singles and remain fond of classic movies such as The Belly of an Architect.

The return of a 1990s phenomenon in the format of Pokémon Go illustrates the point nicely, showing the power of brand affinity, of past associations, to engage a vast audience.

More importantly for retailers, the craze demonstrates that it’s possible to drive engagement very quickly if you get it right with mobile innovation.

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French retailer BUT has already used the popularity of Pokémon Go to drive store Traffic and offer discounts to shoppers.

While the rise of the game is set to benefit retailers greatly, through sponsored locations, promotions and merchandising, what it says more broadly is that consumers crave fantastic and entertaining experiences alongside a sense of community and adventure.

AdTech AdThis was heavily in evidence at the recent Cannes Lions advertising and marketing festival. Many winning campaigns in categories such as mobile provided examples of innovation that deliver a human and interactive customer experience.
They included Burger King’s activity in Argentina, where it created an interactive Snapchat game, Snapking, using an entertainment experience to drive a voucher-based mechanic for participants.

Perhaps the best use of innovation applicable to retail was the Sydney Opera House’s #comeonin, using social platforms and location data to create and then invite people to a personalised experience.

Retailers that understand the need to build human connections into their technology innovation have a greater chance of success.

However, when Cheil spoke recently to more than 150 senior global retailers we revealed a disconnection between the focus of their technology innovation and the delivery of better customer experience.

It is very clear that consumers want innovation in technology to be rooted in delivering customer benefits. Yet the conversations with retailers highlight that innovation budgets are not primarily focused on meeting unfulfilled consumer need.

A majority are confident that they have a world-class innovation culture. And, in many cases, this is driven by new technology. That sounds encouraging.

The issue that emerges, though, is that technology displaces meeting unfulfilled consumer need as the driving factor in innovation.

Meeting consumer need was identified by just 18% of retailers as the main reason for innovation, indicating a danger that retailers are losing sight of the consumer.

Consumer research shows that this is an issue for customers. Amazon emerges as the most innovative retailer because it uses technology to make it quicker to find, pay for and receive products.

Where Amazon is identified as less strong is in providing a ‘human service’, but it has maintained customer perceptions in this area at acceptable levels while more traditional offline rivals struggle to deliver against even this hygiene factor.

Retailers could gain greater competitive advantage by using technology in ways that improve perceptions of human service, with a big opportunity in focusing on the greater personalisation of the shopping experience.

This is where they can learn from the success of experiences such as Pokémon Go and brands that use mobile not only to bombard people with messages and offers but to entertain and delight.

In doing this, retailers shouldn’t lose sight of the need to improve the customer experience by using technology to simplify and accelerate the retail experience.

This should be the main focus of retail innovation budgets, rather than investing in mobile and other tech merely for its own sake.

CES 2016: IOT, VR, AR & groceries  

Try to contain your excitement because the connected fridge is finally here. This future blend of refrigeration and grocery retail was launched at CES in Las Vegas.

MasterCard joined forces with Samsung to unveil their Groceries application for the Family Hub refrigerator, which boasts a 21.5 inch display allowing consumers to view their fridge contents without opening the door and order replacement items with taps and swipes.

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It’s smart too, having the capacity to learn what types of food and drink products consumers’ favour. In time, I suspect the capability will be added to automatically order the items consumed most regularly and bring new meaning to ‘out of stocks’.

The fridge will also tailor product recommendations as it learns. This will bring some solace for the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands that have fought for attention on supermarket shelves for so long and are now trying to understand how to bring this same fight to eCommerce.

Shopper marketers must now ask the question, how do you win in grocery if your consumer is buying from their fridge? Part of that answer must be in recommendation and the other part will come through shoppable media that connects brand communication seamlessly with ecommerce. Groceries by MasterCard is on to this already and the companion app will work on smartphone, tablet or PC and enable consumers to add items to the household shopping list. It’s surely only a matter of time before we see a Groceries by MasterCard ‘buy now’ button on CPG brand communication.

The cynics out there will be quick to suggest it will be more than five years before the connected fridge poses a real commercial threat to traditional grocery retail models and, given the $5,000 price point for this Samsung model, they have a point.

Transforming shopping and ecommerce with VR and AR

Virtual reality applications are much cheaper to access, making them very big news at CES this year because they promise an experience that has previously been the stuff of science fiction. Gamers will be the big winners in this, but shoppers should expect to see more VR too.

A Google Cardboard headset costs around £5 and a consumer can already enter a far more immersive experience than is provided by a holiday brochure by coupling Cardboard with Google Maps or, as Nestle offered in its partnership with Google, the experience of touring a Brazilian coffee plantation.

VR has the opportunity to transform ecommerce, enabling a near real experience of a product that had only been available in-store until now. But we will also see more retailers using VR in their shops to educate, inspire and sell product benefits. This will provide a reason for new customers to visit stores and, if the experience is good, it will keep them coming back.

Augmented reality is set to enhance shopper experience and the ModiFace Mirror shows just what can be achieved in-store. The mirror allows users to change not only their makeup but also whiten their teeth, alter their eyebrows, reverse the signs of aging, and change eye color while also delivering a 3D makeup tutorial. At an expected $2,000 per unit it’s not cheap, but compared to the salary of additional sales associates it represents value.

I’m not a big fan of removing staff from the shop floor as they make the biggest difference in customer experience, but the idea of being greeted by a Segway advanced robot in aisle seven sounds like fun.

Innovations in cash management

Where retailers do need to manage cost is in cash management and a new addition to CES this year was the Digital Money Forum. Apple, Google and Samsung all see the future as being in smartphone-based payments that deliver fast, seamless and secure transactions for consumers. More exciting is the innovation at the intersection of wearable technology and payments.

MasterCard and fintech firm Coin announced a partnership  that will enable manufacturers to integrate mobile payments into pretty much anything able to accommodate an NFC chip. Fitness tracker-makers Atlas and Moov and smart watch producer Omate have already signed-up to MasterCard’s Digital Enablement Service and I am sure we will see many more products do so very soon.

All this talk of the future makes me feel my age and I’m starting to think those oldies who don’t own connected fridges and still use cash will be the only people left in our stores. Help is at hand though. The Genworth R701 Exoskeleton could become the must have tool to help retailers shape stores for people like me in our old age because wearing the product simulates what it feels like to be an elderly person. That brings to mind an apocryphal story involving a CEO who wore a pregnancy suit to shop his store and then conceived the idea of parent and baby parking.

This anecdote provides a reminder that while CES brings us fantastic insight into technology that might shape retail in the future, we must never forget that the customers who shop our stores are real people and that true transformation in retail experience is always grounded in human truths.