Today's high street is evolving to survive, driven by the modern customer who has high expectations for a personalised and interactive experience and over all convenience of service. With this in mind, the in-store network is fast becoming the blood line for many retailers, able to support a growing variety of new and emerging customer facing technologies as well as core business functions. Paul Leybourne, Head of Sales at Vodat, investigates the network of the future and the role it has to play in reviving the high street.
While some are contemplating the death of the store, the fact is there has never been a better time for the store to rediscover its strengths as the flagship for the retail brand. Regardless of which channel the consumer uses, the store remains a key destination for them at any stage in their shopping journey.
Customers now visit stores not simply to buy, but to browse, talk to staff, talk to friends, log onto the Internet through kiosks and tablets, update their Facebook pages with latest locations, check out prices and promotions and look at new products. They may have planned to come in or they may have dropped in on a whim; they may have time on their hands or they may have 10 minutes before they have to be back in the office; they may not be shopping at all but accompanying friends or family.
The variations are endless but they are coming into the store and have a range of expectations when they get there, some of which retailers have worked hard over many years to satisfy. However, now the bar has risen, and retailers want, if they can, to identify each and every customer as they arrive and provide each with a personal experience, regardless of the reason for their visit.
This is where the store network comes into play. It is the crux of in-store operations and will continue to be so, as the in-store environment evolves into an interactive hub for consumers to look, touch, feel, test products and engage with sales staff armed with devices delivering in depth knowledge far beyond the capabilities of a lone sales assistant.
Past and present
Initially, the in-store network was used mainly for cost effective communications across the retail estate – using VoIP (voice over internet protocol) – inventory management and the facilitation of payments. This enabled retailers to deliver a seamless cross-channel experience in which the enterprise could freely interact.
Since then, in particular the last couple of years, the retail landscape has changed for good with a renewed vigour on interactive and digital technologies. This is partly due to the post 1990s generation of tech savvy consumers entering the market, who have grown up using smart-phones, social media, tablets and games consoles and are hungry for new technologies, but also a result of the proliferation of smart-phone and tablet devices, teamed with the ease of browsing and ordering products online.
Mobile phones are and will increasingly be, the best way to reach out to consumers, with 30.9 million smart-phone users in the UK in 2013, that's 48.8% of UK residents. This is expected to increase to 43.4 million by 2017, which is 80.9% of the population.
With a mobile phone only an arm's length away for close to 50% of the population, what better method is there for retailers to communicate with their customers? Customers now use mobiles and tablets to access retail websites to research products and make purchases, as well as downloading vouchers for redemption in store and accessing free WiFi networks. It's also an easy way for retailers to send direct marketing in the form of push alerts, enticing customers into the store with offers and sales information.
This has resulted in lots of small niche technology companies developing new interactive technology and apps for smart-phone devices for both the in-store and online environment. For retailers, the headache is knowing which technology to invest in and identifying which developments are just passing fads. In this crowded market, the in-store network has had to rapidly evolve to support this plethora of new and emerging consumer facing technologies, whilst not compromising on security.
The most recent innovations to have been adopted by a number of luxury brands include; mobile PoS, online connection in store via a tablet, visual merchandising – via interactive TV screens, mirrors and digital-walls, consumable product data via RFID tags and tablets, virtual reality changing rooms, clothes rails and apps. Other network reliant services that have been widely adopted by many retailers are free WiFi and push alerts.
Recent developments in action
Wall mounted visual merchandising
The latest trend in visual merchandising is a wall mounted screen, which retailers use to stream videos of catwalk shows, product offers and idyllic scenery, in keeping with the brand message. An example of this is the video wall display in or on the front of Hollister stores, with live feeds to Californian beaches, enhancing the brand vision and customer experience.
Virtual tech in-store
The virtual changing room was created using innovative modified XBox Kinect software; a system devised by Microsoft for the video gaming industry, which has now been applied to the fashion sector. Topshop and John Lewis are amongst a handful of retailers to trial the technology.
Using full-length virtual mirrors, shoppers can select a retailers latest look, size up the virtual garments on their body, receive information on stockists and prices, and print their shopping wish list – all at the wave of a hand.
Virtual rails are another recent development, with M&S using it in its Amsterdam store. The concept integrates digital rails with physical rails of clothing, allowing customers to place orders for free delivery through points in the store, via sales assistants' iPads or on their own mobile device using the in store WiFi.
Personalisation of clothing has become digital with RFID tags
Burberry customers can now access a wealth of rich product data from garments in-store, enabled by RFID tags embedded within items of clothing. Customers can scan the tags with their mobile device or tablet when logged into Burberry.com – this reveals the story of its creation by way of videos and product information.
Customers of the digitally enhanced Regent Street store will also be able to watch this video content on the large wall mounted mirrors, which transform into interactive screens for the streaming of video clips.
The video clips comprise of product catwalk debuts, design sketches and clips of your name being engraved into a metal name tag – which is stitched into the lining. This is a new initiative to personalise each and every item.
Customer facing tablet technology
Coast, Oasis and Warehouse have installed iPads in its stores. The tablets will deliver three entirely different types of functionality: MPoS – allowing payments anywhere in the store for queue busting; interactive marketing – delivered via image and video content on wall mounted iPads in the changing rooms. Customers can also use the WiFi to access the internet.
Using tablets to connect with the online channel enables retailers to offer their entire product back catalogue without having to stock it in-store, giving the option of expanding the range of products on offer, no matter the size or capabilities of the store. This delivers better variety and availability of products which in turn helps drive sales, as well as removing the barriers between bricks and mortar and eCommerce sales, with both channels benefiting and working together as opposed to against each other.
These examples demonstrate that shopping in-store is becoming more-and-more about the experience and creating an atmosphere that will excite customers!
However, retailers cannot forget the technology behind the scenes that that enables all this functionality – the retail network. It needs to be robust, highly secure and flexible as well as capable of managing the varying public and private demands of the store environment, from business operations, such as payments, communications and inventory management to customer facing and new emerging technologies, ideally on ONE Network, for ease of use and cost effectiveness to guarantee success now and in the future.