Like any other sector, retailing goes through fads and trends and while some of them come and go quickly, others—like e-commerce—stand the test of time. At the forefront of this development is the United States with its high-tech giants and creative start-ups. Many of the new online services and technologies born in this dynamic market already have a huge impact on the global commercial behavior, from the way we evaluate products and services to the way we pay for them. moving looks at several game-changing trends coming our way.
Let’s be honest: Many of us prefer online shopping to in-store, but every time we place purchases for clothes, shoes and other wearables, we’re taking a chance that what we order won’t fit or look right and will need to be returned. There’s a virtual solution: Augmented reality (AR) technology layers computer-generated enhancements on top of things to make it easier for us to interact. With the Converse Shoe Sampler app, for example, consumers can “try on” sneakers from home by pointing their smartphone camera at their feet. The app offers a selection of shoes by superimposing them on the camera image so customers can see how the footwear looks on them. Juniper Research predicts that the AR apps market is expected to grow from $515 million in 2016 to $5.7 billion in 2021.
VR is the cousin of AR, the difference being that the former completely replaces the real world with a computer-generated environment. The technology typically requires users to wear a headset that completely blocks their view of the real world. The Holoroom app of home improvement and appliance retailer Lowe’s enables customers to design their dream kitchens or bathrooms and then virtually step into the design, with the help of VR goggles like Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.
Speaking of Lowe’s, the company has also equipped some of its stores with service robots that roam the aisles to answer customers’ questions and monitor inventory. The LoweBot uses a 3D scanner to detect people as they enter stores and artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology to provide human-like responses to their questions and commands using text, voice or a combination of both. Shoppers can search for items by telling the bot what they want or by typing items into a touch screen. It can guide them to those items using smart laser sensors, similar to the technology designed for autonomous vehicles.
Done right, retailer-specific apps can enhance shopping journeys. e-commerce pioneers Groupon and LivingSocial are prime examples. Both empower consumers, whether they’re in a new city or just looking to get out of the house, by giving them control over their experiences via their mobile devices to discover food, fun, fashion, wellness and professional services.
If social media portals once solely drove traffic to e-commerce stores, today they’re becoming bona fide platforms for making purchases. Facebook has integrated a “Buy Now” function in its News Feed advertisements. Users who have never bought something from a merchant before don’t have to reenter their payment details if they have already stored them on Facebook. Just click and buy.
Millennials in the USA are becoming increasingly interested in where their shopping dollars are going and are gravitating to retailers who reveal all the inner workings of their operations. Online clothing retailer Everlane, for example, details the entire product costs of their products, materials, labor, duties and markup. This trend highlights a growing consumer awareness of sustainability and the desire to be more ethically conscious in buying decisions.
The idea behind the fusion of retail and entertainment is that people are more likely to engage with retailers that incorporate fun and a unique experience into their stores, such as a boutique coffee shop or live music performances. Since the birth of the mall in the late 1960s, with rare exceptions such as the mega Mall of America in Minnesota, entertainment was rarely found in a mall or shopping center. That’s changing fast. Grapevine Mills Mall in Dallas, for instance, has added a 40,000-square-foot LEGOLAND Discovery Center and a 10,000-square-foot miniature gold course made with LEGO bricks. Nor is retailtainment confined to shopping centers. Next year, American craft beer titan Stone Brewing will open what is said to be the world's first beer-themed hotel, offering special-release beers, three on-site bars and a growler delivery service to each of its 99 guest rooms.
No longer an option, same-day delivery is rapidly becoming a requirement in urban centers, where speed is the name of the game. Amazon’s estimated 65 million Prime customers are proof of that. Tech start-ups such as Bringg and Deliv have responded to this demand. Bringg offers consumers real-time tracking information for their packages, while allowing distributors to dispatch and manage orders from the web. With the service, drivers can interact directly with both customers and distributors. And customers can track and watch their packages arrive, just as they do with a ridesharing companies like Uber or Lyft. Deliv also taps into the ride-hailing industry’s model, allowing companies to mobilize a team of drivers when they schedule deliveries in a city.
The e-commerce behemoth is always good for surprises, its push into groceries and fresh produce being the latest example. With its acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon is extending its battle with retailers from its home online turf directly to the streets. A network of physical grocery stores also moves the company closer to its ambitions of delivering internet-placed orders within hours. Add to this its pioneering work in smart devices. Amazon’s new Echo Look assistant, running its popular Alexa voice-controlled app, is equipped with a special “style assistant” camera that helps catalog outfits and rates their look based on algorithms programmed with advice from fashion specialists. The device functions as a smart mirror of sorts; users can tell it to take full-length photos or short videos to check out their outfit from seldom-seen angles. Amazon is moving step by step toward its vision of a digitally enhanced, voice-activated home where consumers only have to say what they need before their accounts are debited and goods delivered. Shopping can’t get much easier.