Monday 20 October 2014

Cutting edge technology...Are you being served?

An Irish firm is leading the way in transforming shopping, using cutting-edge technology and turning science fiction into high-street reality

Monica Heck

Published 25/05/2014 | 02:30

The New Dawn: New technologies are rapidly being adapted to utterly change the nature and experience of shopping

YOU need to find a pair of blue shoes to match your suit for a wedding. You hate shopping and wish you were still home in bed. Unfortunately, you're standing in the middle of a shop.

Suddenly you hear a voice. "Hello, Sir, can I help you?" In front of you stands a projection of a woman, man or a comic book superhero, perhaps, depending on the retailer's sense of humour.

Engaging you in casual conversation about the weather, it senses that you are none too pleased with this forced shopping expedition and commiserates, before getting the low-down on the blue shoes situation.

It shows you what's in stock and gets your initial feedback, before paging a personal shopper who will meet you on the third floor. Science fiction? Not any more, it's coming to a shop near you right now and it's Irish.

Mayo-based Visual Brand Communications (VBC) is currently pitching its holographic technologies to retail and corporate environments in the form of Hali, a holographic retail assistant. The digital cutout of a human, projected on a panel, was tested in Dublin Airport last year and was recently sold to Shell Ireland for health and safety training.

A combination of Tom Cruise sci-fi movie Minority Report and the recession inspired VBC chief executive Alan Dowling to leap from traditional signage right into the future. The company, which is going for its second round of investment, is also launching a new product this year involving foot-tall projections of people on a virtual shelf, which it suspects will be attractive to the retail space.

"We've had interest from a leading high-end department store, as well as banking and hospitality contacts here in Ireland and we are talking to high-end luxury brands in the UK and US," said Ann McEnery, CMO at VBC. "The key difference is our technology is intelligent, counts footfall, interacts with customers and reads moods. We are generating revenue from what would be dead wall space."

Alan Dowling notes that futuristic technologies could be the ideal solution in these economic times.

"Retailers were reducing footprint, human resources and stock and everyone agreed the customer journey was suffering. Our technology could be a solution to a positive customer journey."

The good news is that the Irish economy is certainly showing signs of recovery, according to the latest mood report by the ESRI and KBC Bank and the latest figures released by Kantar Worldpanel. An economic recovery might coax retailers into purchasing more technology that will, in turn, coax customers back into shops.

Technology is likely to play a vital role in helping retailers become more nimble. It will also turn shopping into just another connected experience, just another layer of the 'internet of things', a future world where you can blame your fridge for not buying the milk.

We may have thought e-commerce – like online shopping, home delivery and even the drive-through collection points pioneered by Tesco and SuperValu in the Irish market – changed the face of retail but we've seen nothing yet.

The very notion of a bricks and mortar store is evolving, sometimes even disappearing. One Chinese e-commerce grocery player once went as far as opening 1,000 virtual stores overnight, which could only be accessed in certain locations using GPS technology through an app. Some of those locations just happened to be the front doors of its competitor's shops.

Without matching those types of guerrilla marketing tactics, retailers around the world, including Eason here at home, have taken to the street in the last couple of years and are placing virtual shops in busy commuter areas, such as subway platforms and train stations.

Scanning items from a digital wall, paying for them on a smartphone and finding the bags on the doorstep an hour later sure beats the frazzled midweek commuter shop and allows the retailer to expand its presence more easily.

Shorter-term pop-up shops have also taken off. In March, Kenzo and the Blue Marine Foundation turned up in the Marais area of Paris with a marine-themed digital screen shop front denouncing overfishing. Passers-by could repopulate the on-screen aquarium by either buying items of clothing or taking a picture of the shop and sharing it on Instagram with the hashtag #nofishnonothing.

Looking further to the future again, while bricks and mortar stores are unlikely to be going anywhere they will become increasingly targeted and digital. In a nod to Burberry's Shanghai flagship store that changes according to the weather, Irish shopfronts of the future may soon start showing blue skies to cheer up shoppers during the beating rains of July.

Inside, clothes shoppers may one day be able to scan various items using the store app on their smartphone, as trialled by Hointer in Seattle. They will then calmly head to their assigned changing room, where the requested clothes will be waiting for them.

If they don't want to bother getting undressed, a virtual changing room, like the ones recently trialled in France by Carrefour or in Abu Dhabi by The Galleria, will run through various shades and sizes on a 3D model.

On the shop floor, interactive walls will allow customers to run through a wider catalogue of 3D items than would ever be possible on a rack. Adidas has already piloted a similar system, which allows customers to narrow the search and zoom and rotate items to examine them more closely before deciding to try the real pair on.

Customers wandering around a shop may happen upon areas that combine a specific scent and sound, while in other areas walls may start to appear or disappear, depending on who appears in front of them. It may sound far-fetched, but Coca-Cola did just that on Valentine's day this year by setting up a virtual wall on a Turkish street that only lit up when a couple walked by. That kind of targeting is a retailer's dream.

In some cases, shops will harness the power of 3D printing. Imagine a scenario where the customer adapts the product design to his own taste, hits print and it appears on the conveyor belt. And over time, some shops may well become fully immersive. Using Oculus Rift technology, customers may well join the matrix, lying back at home while entering a virtual shopping world and giving commands through thought alone.

It's happening. TopShop will be turning its London flagship store into a virtual front-row seat for this year's autumn/winter fashion week and Castle Lite has tested beer pouring using just the power of the mind.

Back in the present, however, far from the trappings of robotics and virtual reality, Irish and international retailers remain cautious.

"Selling the concept of our holographic solutions can be challenging," said VBC's Dowling. "Retailers can't decide whose budget it is coming out of, it's seen as a risk because it's so new. We need to prove that our systems deliver results, we're having to educate the market."

Eason, however, proves that it's never a bad idea to invest in the future. "The Christmas 2012 virtual store experiment directly informed our digital book strategy going forward," said Eason spokesperson Paul McSharry.

"We discovered people at the virtual store wanted to buy e-books, not hard copies, but Eason didn't have a solution for that.

"This experiment drove a partnership with Kobo, generating an app and leading to the solutions we now provide in-store."

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