The Perspective 
Monday, 30 November 2009

As the days of 2009 dwindle, I find myself crisscrossing the country, talking to retailers of every stripe. These conversations have revealed a few consistent themes, which are likely to drive customer-facing retail technologies in the coming year.

To my relief and that of probably everyone in the industry, there’s a sense the economy is coming back. Earlier this month I was at the Kioskcom Self Service Expo in New York, and I would describe the mood as "unexpected optimism." Retailers and technology buyers of all sorts were on the floor in surprising numbers with specific projects they needed to execute. One exhibitor even exclaimed, "We’re on the way up!" while making a swooping airplane motion towards the sky. Now that’s what I call a return to confidence. It is a safe bet that retailers who have been waiting on the sidelines will resume investments in their store experiences in the coming year.

The dominant theme I have heard from retailers is the need to inspire shoppers. Retailers are seeking technologies that do for any product category what mannequins do for apparel—show the customer how to bring many items together into a compelling, personalized solution. An expectant mother furnishing a baby’s room, a couple designing a home theatre, a parent building a fish tank for their child—shoppers need to be inspired and guided to a final solution. Retailers understand that addressing a consumer’s end goal is the key to driving more sales, yet doing this with human interactions is expensive. So, I expect to see increasingly sophisticated shopper assistance tools emerge from the simple product selectors of today. Retailers are keenly focused on the problem, and a few are ready to test solutions.

Closely related to inspiration is the idea of cross-selling. Retailers are interested in technology that helps them add items to a shopper’s basket by reaching across the store to cross-sell many product categories. I get the sense from retailers that this is an area in need of improvement. Customer-facing technologies that draw upon in-store and online inventories to automatically suggest the best complementary goods will likely be tested in the coming year.

Another recurring theme is a desire to provide quality customer service where today’s economics simply do not allow it. Many complex products do not sell in enough volume or at high enough prices to justify having human experts in the store. Several retailers see technology as the way forward. Expert systems can give customers the additional product education they need to make an informed choice, while sparing the cost of additional store labor. Expect to see customer-facing technologies deployed most commonly around these so-called "marginal" product categories.

Finally, with recessionary pressures on staffing levels, retailers want to make the most out of their store staff through sales process automation. They want humans doing what humans do best—guiding customers through complex, personalized, real-world product problems and decisions. For the 80 percent of any selling process that is the same for every customer, retailers are looking for technological solutions that do this work, letting store associates handle more customers in a given period of time. In a sense, self-checkout was only the beginning. The phrase I have heard is "moving customers from questions to the counter" as quickly as possible. I personally view this as challenging to execute in practice and anticipate some failed trials, given the need for seamless integration between store personnel and in-store technology. However, the first retailer to do it will reap significant rewards and set the stage for the future of retail.

The year ahead is shaping up to be an exciting one for in-store technologies. Recession-induced paralysis seems to be over and retailers seem to have a clear view of how they want to move forward. If they succeed in deploying the right solutions, it will be a winning year for everyone—shoppers, retailers, and even technology suppliers.
The writer is CEO of Intava.
Posted by: Troy Carroll AT 01:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  

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