Opinion: The future of the high street

Without innovation, could it be elimination for the high street? Asks Mark Burgess, business director of marketing agency smp.

Web, mobile, social, apps. The shopper journey that we knew has changed forever and so too have shoppers. Their omnichannel approach to shopping has blurred the lines between retail channels, so they expect the same seamless service and customer experience they enjoy online wherever they shop. As a result, wooing them back to a physical store is getting harder by the day.

Retailers really need to go the extra mile if they’re to avoid the recent fate of the likes of Maplin and Toys R Us and the current well documented struggles of Mothercare, New Look and Carpetright. To draw customers back to bricks-and-mortar, they need to rethink how they use their physical space and store formats. The key is to give customers something they can’t get online, whether that’s entertainment, information or service. In a market where customers crave a sensorial, physical or emotional interaction with the brands they buy and store they shop in, experience is everything.

So how do we create a meaningful interaction between the shopper and a product, brand or retailer? Well, we could start by following the examples set by the fashion industry which has consistently embraced technology and innovation to entice shoppers back onto the high street in ever more inventive ways.

Nike incorporated holographic projection into its in-store design service, allowing shoppers to customize shoes and see bespoke creations come to life before their eyes. While over in LA, Rebecca Minkoff introduced Smart Walls into its flagship store, streamlining the in-store experience for shoppers by giving them the chance to digitally explore the latest collection. Uniqlo took this one step further by introducing magic mirrors into its changing rooms, allowing customers to see what the clothes they were trying on would look like in another colour, pattern or style.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology such as this is increasingly finding its way onto the high street; blending aspects of physical and digital shopping to create a more entertaining experience that has customer service at its heart.

Amazon has taken this principle to the extreme by removing the things shoppers hate most about the store environment – queues and checkouts. AmazonGo in Seattle is the world’s first walk-in, walk-out store, incorporating the latest technology, computer vision and AI into the very fabric of the building. Shoppers simply scan the app on their smartphone to enter, select whatever they want from the shelves and leave. Not queueing. No waiting. No hassle. Whatever you pick up is automatically added to your virtual account. Change your mind and replace the item, and the tech is so advanced, it removes the item from your account instantly.

To some extent, all human interaction has been removed from the experience too; no checkout staff, no other shoppers waiting in line to chew the fat with while you queue. So, it will be interesting to see if shopper behaviours change once the novelty has worn off. Will people miss other people?

SnapChat also successfully blended the physical and digital world, delivering a unique take on AR and VR to create a truly unique shopping experience for Nike’s Air Jordan. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the player’s legendary free throw line dunk, they created a new World Lens; pulling up a life-sized Michael Jordan in AR floating in ‘real space,’ so fans could walk through this iconic moment in sport history.

Tap the screen, and the star reverts to a black and white image, dressed in as-yet-unreleased AJ III Tinker trainers; the pre-curser to a one-off sales opportunity. The company unveiled a unique Quick Response (QR) code at special commemorative events. Eagle-eyed fans who spotted the code and scanned it were brought back into Snapchat for the chance to buy the trainers.

These stellar examples are admittedly at the gold standard end of the spectrum. But in the UK, where retailers have been a little reluctant to invest in shopper technology, there are still many existing innovation platforms that can be used to engage shoppers and provide a more personalised experience.

Near Field Communication (NFC) chips, QR codes and iBeacons are just a few of the technologies that are increasingly used in store. Link them to a loyalty app for example, and the retailer can open a compelling dialogue with the shopper as they enter and journey through the store. They can guide them to relevant products, targeted offers and timely promotions based on their shopping habits, likes and preferences; adding value to their visit.

By using technology in low-engagement categories, where everyday products and household essentials vie for attention from disengaged shoppers buying on autopilot, we have seen real value added for one of our clients.

In low engagement categories the aisles are packed with products that shoppers buy with reluctance. They’d rather spend their money on something else, but some products such as toilet tissue and cleaning products are a necessity. So, how did we get shoppers excited about low-interest products and get them to choose our client over and above the competitor range sitting right next to us on the shelf?

We adopted Projection Mapping technology but refined it to work in store. It brought the fixture to life and concentrated attention on our product. But, more importantly, the animation gave us the freedom to tell a story, where traditional on-shelf formats, such as barkers and fins, would have restricted the amount of information a shopper could be expected to absorb.

In a different sector – consumer technology – providing customers with higher levels of information to enhance their shopping experience was also at the heart of the interactive fixture we’ve recently created for a client in Harrods. The bespoke display utilizes content, only previously available online, to provide shoppers with detailed product information at the point of their purchase decision. It guides them through what can be a complex category; bringing product benefits and functionality to life before their eyes.

Both campaigns showcased how an individual brand can add value and excitement to a retail environment and will hopefully help reassure retailers that disruption isn’t just for disruption’s sake but can enhance the shopping experience for customers.

Having set a benchmark in the commodity aisle, we’ll be turning our attention to other areas of the store, inspiring other clients, brands and category managers to leverage technology to bring more excitement to the shop and more shoppers back to stores.


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