The Digital Zone

Interactive technology is the future of brick-and-mortar retail. Are you ready?
by : 

Michelle Jones

April 1, 2014

Imagine, if you will, a large digital display in your window that passing shoppers use to browse and buy your products with a wave of their hand … even when your store is closed! How about mirrors that dispense fashion advice, holographic store greeters, and interactive displays that provide product information as soon as the customer picks it up off the shelf? This is the future of retail, and it’s not as far off as you might think. Stores in major metropolitan cities around the world already are implementing these ideas.

The future looks decidedly digital for traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Your customers are using their smart phones to compare prices, look at reviews, and get recommendations from their friends before purchasing.They want instant validation that their purchase is not only saving them money but also will be buzz-worthy enough to share online. Future technology will pull that information out of their mobile devices and display it on your store’s walls and other surfaces, and yes, even in your store windows. Some terms cropping up to describe these digitally enhanced stores are “Web and Mortar” (Google) and “Immersive Store Environment” (SpringerLink).

Does this future look a bit frightening to you, a little too much like the future world of Minority Report, in which shoppers are bombarded with personalized 3D advertising from stores as they pass by? That future is already a reality on the Internet, where personalized pop-up ads based on our searches and the websites we’ve visited are part and parcel of the online experience. Seems a tad intrusive, doesn’t it? Like it or not, commerce is moving more and more toward such highly personalized interaction. As with any change, it takes some getting used to. Take a deep breath and know there are ways you can ease into this new world of interactive retailing without compromising the values of your store.

Smart phones mean smarter shoppers

As customers shop online today they’re seeing reviews of the products they’re researching, suggestions for products others have purchased, price comparisons of similar products, and even statistics on which of their friends have purchased those products. They’re used to and expect digital support at all stages of their shopping experience. If you’re not providing this information in your store, it’s easy for them to look for it on their smart phones or in another store. Savvy business advisors are already encouraging new store owners to implement the digital customer experience into their start-up plans.

Keep in mind, however, that the more technology you use in your store, the more human connection your customers will need. This is vital! A balanced relationship between technology and customer service is a must at all times to maximize your customers’ shopping experience.

Let’s look at some ideas you can begin implementing in your store in the next year or two to raise your interactive technology bar.

Make it easy for customers to buy

Because customer engagement is the key to success for any business owner, let’s get rid of the cash register and its associated counter. They are creating a physical barrier between you and your customer that decrease the human connection in your store. Desktop computers and cash registers are quickly becoming relics of the past and are predicted to go the way of VHS tapes. You’ll soon want to invest in a tablet that can scan bar codes, process credit cards, and email receipts to your customers without being tied to the check-out counter.

In place of a bulky check-out counter, consider setting up one or two smaller bagging stands. Your employees will no longer be tied to a single cash-wrap counter, but instead will be able to walk throughout your store with those mobile tablets, helping customers and ringing up sales on the spot!

Signage 2.0

Purchases are most often the result of emotions, which explains why so many customers respond well to inspiring stories about the products they are browsing. Identify a few products in your inventory that have interesting or inspiring stories behind them. Post these stories on your website and create a QR code with a direct link to the stories. Place the QR code next to the relevant products in your store so customers can read about them right there on their smart phones.

QR codes are a snap to create using one of the many free online QR code generators such as Delivr (www.delivr.com), QuikQR (www.quikqr.com), or my personal favorite, QR Stuff (www.qrstuff.com), which is very easy to use and has many options.

Maximize your customers’ hands-on experience. Is a product getting really great reviews? Are your prices competitive with online stores? Make sure you post QR codes next to those products to direct customers to pricing information either on your own website (preferable) or elsewhere on the web.

Encourage customers to post reviews about your store on Yelp.com, FourSquare.com, and Facebook.com. Post a sign on your door and within your store with QR codes to your profiles on these websites. A clever use of such signage I saw recently read, “We encourage YELP-ing in our store,” accompanied by a QR code to their business page on Yelp.

With all of this QR-ing, I’m not suggesting you go through your store and put a code on everything. Pick and choose which products you want to highlight and use QR codes just on those.

Get in the digital game

The future may be looking a bit too bright with the glow of digital displays, but if you start small and make your decisions regarding digital interactivity with intention and focus, you will find the technologica offerings that work best for your store.

The keys to your success in this new digital era? The age of your shoppers, your store culture, and your use of technology to either solve a customer-engagement problem or replace a current system without creating a customer-engagement problem. Set up a brainstorming session with your staff to discuss these and other ideas and find out out what they would like to see in your store. Who knows? They may have some really exciting and creative ideas to help you make your first steps into this new era.


Old school (service) still rules

Many stores are now click-and-mortar businesses—hybrids of online and in-store (“offline”) shopping—and web-and-mortar stores are already a reality. So why are Warby Parker and other successful, previously online-only retailers making the leap into brick and mortar? Two words: personal touch. Shoppers still want a social network in real life, and they still want to touch and try on products before they buy. Use technology to capitalize on your brick-and-mortar advantage, not replace it. For instance, having tablets on the sales floor can empower your staff to step out from behind the counter, engage your customers with enthusiasm and knowledge, and enhance the shopping experience. But, that doesn’t mean eliminating staff training. Bottom line: It’s more important now than ever to hire “people” people who believe in what you do and what you sell.


Michelle Jones is the Webmaster for Retailing Insight.