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The Reality of Creating a Smart Connected Store in Retail Today

We discuss the gap between current retail IoT applications and those that will enable the smart stores of the future.

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Your everyday retailer is under a huge amount of pressure. Apart from stocking the best and latest products ‘straight off the catwalk’ they’re also expected to be competitive against online pricing and provide a dose of experience for good measure. 

It’s a big ask right? The bricks-and-mortar store never died but it has been forced to pivot the way it does business and how it attracts customers. IoT is being championed as the way to solve all of these problems by creating a smart connected store, led by connected products and sensors that help the retail ecosystem to run more smoothly.

Companies like Accenture and Intel make a great case for what the future IoT-enabled retail store will look like and how it will work. Yet we feel the question is; how relevant are these technologies to the smart store of today? In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited R&D funds that would enable us to develop and install every smart product that’s suggested. But actually, we think there are more limitations right now than just financial cost alone.

It goes back to the old adage of ‘technology for technology’s sake’. It seems that everyone is jumping on IoT as the next industrial revolution, without really discovering what systems are available or why they need them in the first place.

Here’s where we see the vision and reality of each new smart store IoT retail application and the ones that are feasible for today’s everyday retailer. 

Beacons and smart stores

The vision:

Beacons (iBeacons, Eddystone, altbeacon etc.) are little devices that attach onto stores and communicate with other devices within a close proximity. They need two parts to work; a broadcaster (the physical beacon sensor) and a receiver (your smartphone and particularly at the moment, a specific smartphone app). 

Through these devices you gain a way to communicate with people outside of your store, sending them offers, unique deals and information. 

On the other side, beacons allow store staff to get more details about their shoppers as they enter the store. So Mr Smith, big fan of turtlenecks, gets directed to the latest selection and Mrs Smith, shoe lady, gets given a 5% off voucher on the latest pumps. This could go on to create a smoother transaction process all led by data that’s collected by the store and attached to a shopper using their smartphone as the trigger. 

The current application:

In Apple's iBeacon, there are some limitations which reduce the value for the shopper. For example, iBeacon is led by iOS. It also requires the download of various apps from every store you enter to work fluidly. Are consumers really going to fill up valuable phone memory with apps for grocery stores, restaurants, boutiques and beauty counters?

To access the code you have to get out your phone, open the app, view the offer and then decide if you’re interested. Sure, on a dedicated shopping day this might appeal, but it’s not something you’d want pushed to you on every lunch break.

Secondly, push notifications are often reserved for the best of the best. Getting consumers to agree to allow your app to not only track their location, but also to send them push notifications, is harder than it looks. Oh and the user would need to have Bluetooth enabled too. 

Other beacon services such as Eddystone are where we see the game changing. Eddystone is cross-platform, capable of supporting Android, iOS or any platform that supports BLE beacons. It is also enabled by a simple URL popping up on the user's smartphone, which allows them to choose whether to proceed or hold back. No app download requirements makes the user journey much more fluid. 

Until the process is that seamless, beacons will be suitable for some smart store experiences but will not become ubiquitous. 

IoT-led data tracking

The vision:

It’s not enough for people to be shopping with us, we need to know what they’re buying, how they’re walking and how long they spend with us too. Here’s where smart products and sensors come in useful within the smart store. IoT-led data tracking would allow you to get advanced metrics on the flow of your store, its best selling points and even how many times a particular customer comes back to view the same product. 

The current application:

There are a few applications currently making this available. One we found was Scanalytics which uses floor sensor analytics to measure how many people cross over it and how long they browsed in a certain area. Tracking shopper numbers (something which has been around for a while with door sensors) and how long shoppers stay stationary. This is definitely a step in the right direction on the way to measuring the path-to-purchase process. 

As more advanced technologies such as facial recognition and smart-tagging grow, this will become more useful. For example, how about tracking the thoughts and reactions of your customer to a new product by measuring their facial expression? However this does raise concerns over privacy and that side of the debate has not really been figured out yet.

Smart mirrors and virtual dressing

The vision:

Smart mirrors used within fitting rooms could suggest other items based on what you’re trying on from data of what others have bought using an RFID label-scanning system. Smart mirrors have also been put into use by brands such as Burberry with an augmented reality element, allowing the shopper to virtually dress themselves without having to physically put on a thing. 

Image source: Two way mirrors

Taking this further than just virtual dressing alone in CISCO’s IoT in work report, they suggest an omni-channel experience where the user can find an item on a store app on their phone, select the appropriate size and the shop assistant gets a buzz to deliver it to them.

The current application:

The difficulty with this as a ‘one size fits all’ solution is that there would be a huge amount of content to comprise and format, particularly in fashion where items change almost weekly. The consumer could come to expect that every product should have this feature, which is a big ask in a store with hundreds or even thousands of products. 

The difficulty of having ‘smarter’ shop experiences like the app would be having enough staff members to deliver this as a seamless process to every customer. After all, don’t we want our IoT systems and sensors to replace store staff, not add to their workload? Of course, some suggest that we’ll be employing robots to assist which could make the selection and delivery much faster.

Perhaps the answer for smart stores right now would be to deliver this as a marketing project. For example, you could come up with a smart mirror or AR experience for a small five-piece capsule wardrobe right? Link this into the rise of influencer marketing, where you have special lines or items handpicked by bloggers and it becomes much more of a dedicated (and achievable) experience. Until content becomes cheaper or easier to produce (using templates, algorithms etc.) mass rollouts just aren’t logistically possible. 

Consumer-grade technology such as the Raspberry Pi could also help at this early stage and there are companies such as AlertTech which offer sensor tracking systems. These pick up total fitting room visits, numbers of calls to staff and the staff response time. All valuable metrics that could help a smarter store to adapt the way it services customers at the all-important try on stage. 

Smart digital signage screens

The vision

As digital signage software developers, this is an area we’re very clued up on; the smart digital screen for the smart store. The vision is to have screens which dynamically adapt to their shopper and the shopping ecosystem.

In current retail, if there’s a product on offer or a line to push, it gets physically moved to the front of the store. With digital screens, the same principle would apply, as digital content is pushed to the top of playlists, or where merchants could ‘talk’ to the units to dynamically adjust pricing based on weather (umbrella sale if it’s raining), that day’s events and current stock levels. 

Digital screen displays also then become personalized, welcoming shoppers back to the store and showing their preference on items from data captured by beacons and their smartphones, as mentioned previously. 

The current application:

The fundamentals of digital signage for smart stores are already in place. It’s easier than ever for retailers to adjust what shows on their screen either in real time, or using predefined playlists, with cloud-based software systems such as ScreenCloud which can be managed from anywhere. 

In truth, these are not being utilized to full effect right now with many stores still relying on bland screen displays which play the same content on repeat. However, as more and more retailers become attuned to the power of digital signage (8/10 shoppers enter a store because of it), they’ll begin adopting strategies which showcase hot new products, share timely travel information, social media dashboards and promotion of closeouts.

In instances where digital screens are being used to full-effect, the result is astounding. Pro:Direct Soccer, located in London’s shopping hub Oxford Circus, uses a huge digital signage network to ensure its digital screens show exactly what’s going on in soccer at that minute in time. It calls itself a ‘digital mortar environment’ using touchscreens and virtual reality to engage its audience. We see this as the next step in retail brands who are keen to embrace the power of the digital screen. 

Image source: soccerbible

Voice-activated screens and facial recognition technology is not quite there yet (or through ethical guidelines) but these will also adapt the big screen experience and how smart stores are able to adopt them. 

Smart products

The vision:

Smart tags (tiny digital screens or labels) will be added to each product, the same as the traditional price tag but with one difference: these tags can be changed from afar. This would allow retailers to adjust pricing based on the store stock levels, peak periods and current sales. 

Smart packaging that monitors the freshness of products and even smart refrigerators which monitor product inventory and restock themselves according to temperature would also be utilized within the store environment. This would make it a self-sufficient system, with a much lower demand for physical staff members, therefore saving on cost. 

You could also have a smart trolley, equipped with your digital shopping list, that is able to tick off products as you add them to the trolley by weight alone, adjusting the list accordingly until you have (miraculously) remembered every single item. 

The current application:

Take the L’Oreal smart hairbrush, that can tell if it’s being brushed on wet or dry hair, has a microphone to listen and analyze sounds of the brushing and which uses algorithms to score the user’s hair. Useful? Potentially, if you really need deep data on your hair. But it is a hint at what we can expect from future smart products and most importantly, the benefits they provide.

Image source: Marketing Week

The difference we see between the vision and the current model, is that these smart products will be used first in retail-type scenarios and bought second. For example, the smart brush will be used in salons, then potentially later rolled out to consumers. This is an easy way to test the market and achieve PR without dealing with a potential mass of customer queries.

Smart refrigerators and smart packaging would have a wealth of benefits in terms of stock turnover and knowing how to price items more effectively. However, both seem to be a way off of becoming a reality.  

There are similar applications right now, such as the Costa Express CEM-200* which is a self-serve cafe that allows you to order by touchscreen, pay cashless and see personalized digital signage. However, the cost implications of this becoming mainstream suggest it is more for one-off activations than mass rollouts. 

Smart Stores: Vision vs Reality

Unlike in some industries, the smart connected retail store is already part of the way there. We encounter IoT-led devices all of the time and often don’t even notice that they’re there. Sure, some of the ‘big ideas’ need a little more work and the adoption of consumer-grade technologies and systematic rollouts to make them accessible to all, but there’s no reason why every store can’t begin thinking about how it will work smarter moving forward.

What smart technologies are you adopting? We’d love to hear from you or answer any questions - hit us up on Twitter @screencloud

 SC Gradient

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