The transition of retailers into technology companies is well underway
If you’re a major retail company and you aren’t exploring new technologies, the chances are you won’t be in business for much longer. The industry is experiencing its biggest shift since ecommerce began to ply trade away from bricks and mortar merchants. This fundamental change is embodied in the strategies of companies like Walmart and Ocado, who are relentlessly pursuing different technological avenues to decipher and meet consumer demands. As retailers encourage the digital and physical worlds to converge, are we entering a new era of retail?
Linear shopping experiences are spent
Today, shoppers walk into any given store and browse the items on display. They might find an item they like and look for cheaper alternatives online, but that’s often as far as the digital experience goes. Retailers envisage a future where someone enters a shop after receiving a geofencing alert, is identified by facial recognition, and sent further offers via their phone or on interactive screens. The shopper’s choices will be added to a vast database and analysed to find out what strategies worked (and what didn’t). Then the shopper is likely to be contacted with follow up offers based on what their preferences seem to be. It sounds complex and perhaps even somewhat intrusive, but this data driven, digitally supported retail experience is already happening. There are countless examples of retail companies adopting and applying innovative technology to extend their brands, better understand their customers, and provide a more meaningful shopping experience. Walmart is pushing Augmented and Virtual Reality, Ocado is a robotics powerhouse, and Shapeways has pioneered 3D printed products. Alongside this, companies like Richline Group are relying on blockchain to prove authenticity, and Tesco plans to verify customer age via facial recognition. Many of these applications are designed for the physical world, but they are fuelled and supported by digitalisation. The boundary between online and in store is fading fast.
A technological testing ground
Retail has entered a phase of avid technological adoption. This has benefitted companies by improving production, making use of multiple channels to build brand identity, and gathering and understanding data. But what does this mean for shoppers? Will they welcome a hyper relevant and personal experience? Either way, as a wholly consumer facing industry, the application of disruptive technology in retail is an important step towards the societal acceptance of robots, AI, drones, blockchain, mixed reality and more. Watching a robot carry your bags to your car outside in a shopping precinct, for instance, is the next step towards actually owning a house bot. This isn’t just because retail tech will normalise novel concepts, but because the technology itself will mature in controlled environments. Shops could even be seen as a type of training ground, letting technology improve and develop in real world situations alongside real human beings.
Ecommerce has certainly forced the retail industry to change, but incumbents are alive and kicking. Whether it’s a desperate attempt to fend off Amazon or simply a realisation of what technology can help them to achieve, major retailers have learned how to tap into tech. The aim is not to transition into ecommerce companies, but to build a response that combines digital and real world shopping experiences. The future of retail is multichannel, cross platform and personal. If Walmart’s dedication to disruptive tech is anything to go by, less committed competitors could be left on the shelf.
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