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Opinion: tech brands and the future of retail

With the sector changing rapidly, its technology that’s heralding a new era for retailing, writes Rob Lane.

As reported in this column and elsewhere in Installation recently, the retail sector is wide awake to the possibilities of technology: virtual reality changing rooms, augmented reality furniture and decoration apps, AR apps for ‘trying on’ make-up, multi-touch tables, projection mapping, transparent displays, holographic effects… But this is merely the tip of a burgeoning iceberg, and integrators and developers should find themselves working on more and more retail projects going forward.

In early March, London Tech City-based production company Inition held its inaugural Future of Retail evening with event partner and recruitment expert Handle’s Digital and Technology Division. The evening provided an opportunity for key players in the retail space to see the latest technical and creative innovation at first hand within Inition’s demo studio.

In addition, a series of presentations from leaders in their respective fields proved revealing. Adrian Leu, head of strategy & innovation at Inition’s parent SuperCommunications, explained that “there is no doubt” that the retail sector is changing at a very fast rate, partially as a result of the high street being under attack from online businesses such as Amazon. “Fluid and engaging customer experience together with a seamless union of the online and offline and a strong data-driven culture constitutes the ‘holy grail’ for many high street retailers,” he explained, adding that this is where technology is the “catalyst and driving engine”.

Neil Tinegate, head of digital innovation at Argos, offered his thoughts on the necessity of risk for innovation in retail. Tinegate explained how the retailer ensures that technology and innovation are at the forefront of the company’s thinking. It holds ‘Days of Innovation’ to encourage employees to come together and brainstorm “adventurous ideas”. A good example of an idea that was successful is Argos’ kids’ Christmas wishlist app.

As founder and CEO of GDR Creative Intelligence, Kate Ancketill had plenty to impart on retail’s future. The company provides inspiration, insight and advice to the world’s leading brands and retailers and considers every aspect of the retail experience in the physical and digital space, including store and service design, brand communication and social media.

According to Ancketill: “Technological advancements will see an influx of brands and retailers introducing technologies, services and products that consumers can interact with on a deeper level – be it intellectually, by proximity and interaction, or physically via tactile feedback.”

Artificial intelligence or ‘cognitive computing’ could spur a growth in the use of in-store robots, such as Lowe’s multilingual robot; digital personal assistants for the home – Jibo; learning engines to assist consumers with making more informed decisions/purchases; and workplace ‘cognitive knowledge workers’ – Amelia – that can reply to emails, answer calls and hold conversations.

Away from the store, there’s likely to be a growth of retail-style services in the home. For example, Amazon Echo dispenses information and purchasing advice via voice activation, ordering products immediately from the Amazon store; French chain Darty offers a special button for putting users directly in touch with customer service representatives; and devices such as Amazon Dash and Waitrose’s Hiku (currently trialling) enable consumers to scan item barcodes at home, adding them to their online shopping trolleys.

Ancketill also discussed ‘gesture marketing’, including concepts like the Dorothy app based around distinctive gestures – in this case, three taps of the user’s heels – which summons a service or product. With Dorothy, the gesture fulfils a pre-selected option to order an Uber cab, generate a phone call or send a message to friends. As more and more retail businesses look to embrace the culture of the tech brand, so technology will continue to play a bigger role in the future of retail, online and in-store. Make sure you’re in a position to play your part in this retail revolution.