Global e-commerce revenues continue to grow, and brick-and-mortar retailers are feeling the heat. There’s plenty of evidence pointing to their survival, so why the anxiety?
Despite all the buzz surrounding electronic and mobile commerce, 85 percent of consumers say they prefer to shop in physical stores, a 2016 study by TimeTrade (registration required) found. Even when the same product can be ordered online or purchased at a nearby store, according to TimeTrade’s data, 71 percent of us will still schlep out to the brick-and-mortar retailer to get it.
There’s just something about actually walking into a store and touching products with our hands that the online world can’t replicate. And that’s why amping up on user experience is what will save brick-and-mortar retail. UX is, after all, the new marketing.
With so much demand for memorable, visceral, evocative shopping experiences, the ecosystem of marketing and retail technology companies is doing everything in its power to roll out innovative products.
From video screens empowered by the internet of things (IoT) to omnichannel product browsing solutions to potential differentiators like virtual wallet payments and virtual reality kiosks, merchants have an growing array of options at their fingertips.
Here are four UX and marketing advances that we’ll probably see more of in brick-and-mortar retail in the coming year.
A more unified cross-channel customer experience
Elegant design is one of the most important characteristics of a successful product. Apple has driven that lesson home for sales and marketing pros. When it comes to retail sales, the old adage of not judging a book by its cover doesn’t apply.
While Sir Jonathan Ive has been the key driver for the company’s actual product design, Apple tapped modernist architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson to translate the brand’s aesthetic to its physical stores. When you walk into an Apple Store, you know that it’s Apple.
In 2017, we’re likely to see retail design aesthetics increasingly optimized for reinforcing brands. Physical stores and storefronts will be compelled to reflect their branding for better consistency across all channels — from social to web to mobile to the store itself.
The challenge, then, is to engineer the flow of this omnichannel experience so that customers will find unique treats in store for them when they go online and go shopping in person.
Skin care company Aesop, for example, achieves this balance by providing visitors to its physical stores with consultation experiences, whereby customers can talk over their needs with trained specialists and try out the best products for them.
The brand also designs each key store with the localized feel of the area in which it’s located. The materials of each branch’s décor — and even the lighting and acoustics — are taken into account as branding tools. This in no way cannibalizes Aesop’s online shopping options; instead, it provides a valuable complementary experience.
Interactive displays and digital signage
Is anyone among us immune to the lure of bright moving images? How can we not be enraptured by cleverly crafted and creatively placed video screens?
Over the past year, we’ve started to see more in-store LCD (liquid crystal display) signs displaying rich video content about products, alongside announcements, promotions and light infotainment. Many retailers have also used interactive touchscreen displays to provide a more engaging tactile interaction with the brand.
Thanks to IoT, though, the marketing power of these displays is being taken to new heights. Recognized as the “most disruptive” innovation last month at the Retail Tomorrow conference in San Antonio, Texas, Impax Media provides a video marketing platform that’s mounted at the checkout lane to display branded content.
For customers, watching these displays shortens their perceived wait times. Impax’s screens also have sensors that track traffic and attention metrics — fully anonymously, of course — to provide marketers with insights into customer patterns so they can create better and more engaging shopping experiences.
Beacons and wearables
Beacons and wearables are proving quite the buzz in digital-driven retail. Beacons were introduced three years back, but with the increased appeal of wearables, marketers are now finding more creative ways for these devices to work together.
More than half of consumers would buy wearable tech that allows brands to send them alerts and gather insights, according to a survey from Startek (formerly Accent Marketing). By granting brands data about engaged customers’ lifestyles, marketers can more effectively target consumers with the products and deals that they are most likely to buy.
One of the most compelling companies in new beacon technology is Estimote. This firm creates and sells beacons that can be attached to walls or objects and can be programmed to deliver push notifications and rich content to smart devices in proximity. It’s now being widely used in stadiums and airports but can be implemented by just about anyone, so similar applications can easily be made for all types of locations. Estimote’s hardware and development kit are available for purchase, so marketers can participate in developing content for their beacons.
Augmented/virtual reality and games
Following years of hype with little to show, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have finally begun transforming how people buy. Both offer rich experiences that fully utilize our visual and even auditory senses.
As this technology becomes more refined and affordable, we will see more use inside physical stores — both in the form of interactive pop-up displays and as smartphone apps that augment what you can see inside the store.
VR also supports improved product visualization. Home improvement and furniture stores have provided shoppers with custom 3-D renderings depicting possible home designs via flat screens for years now, but recently, Lowe’s and Marxent Labs partnered to create “Holoroom” kiosks that allow customers to visualize home design via a within-the-room experience using virtual reality. This type of solution allows for try-before-you-buy in the case of larger-scale products and services.
Branded games likewise cultivate engagement and a way to incentivize customers with loyalty programs. “Advergames” are mostly used for offering rewards, which are often deals, samplers and coupons. But these have also evolved from simple product placement to more immersive experiences.
We’ve also seen AR as a platform to drive traffic to physical locations in the case of Pokémon Go.
Personalization drives customer experience
As shoppers grow more attached to the “connected lifestyle,” retail must adapt to the shifts in consumer behavior. Stripping away all the bells and whistles, what these innovations seek to address is how the buying experience can be made more personal and in tune with individual attitudes and preferences.
One thing is certain: retail marketing tech will continue to innovate and incorporate tools that provide a more seamless and impactful customer experience.