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ELLE Australia

SHOPPING IS DEAD LONG LIVE SHOPPING

THERE WAS A TIME, LONG BEFORE ONLINE RETAIL, WHEN SHOPPING MEANT SPOTTING SOMETHING IN A STORE WINDOW AND PUTTING IT ON LAY-BY UNTIL YOU COULD SAVE UP THE HARD-EARNED CASH TO TAKE IT HOME…

If those days seem light-years ago, consider this: in the not too distant future, shopping begins as you walk into a pod-like space, flanked by cameras and sensors, and choose the shop you’d like to visit first. Head to the change rooms where you’ll open the built-in wardrobe, full of pieces from your favourite designers, all in your size. Try not to be startled when the mirror suggests a pair of shoes to go with that skirt. Once you’ve made your selections, you can skip the scavenger hunt for the cash register – it’s not there. Walk out with your shopping bags and your picks will be billed to your account thanks to now-standard technology (that’s what the cameras and sensors were about). All that shopper’s guilt you used to have? It doesn’t really exist when you’re not handing over your credit card.

Next door is a store (actually, let’s go with “space”; “store” is just so 2018) where the sales associate, the first you’ve seen today, greets you by name and asks what you’re looking for. With a tap, she summons a robotic helper – sort of a stockroom BB-8 – to gather an edit of pieces you’ve mentioned or might like based on past purchases. And no, you never have to struggle with hanging up clothes in a fitting room again. This is the future of shopping, and while it sounds a little out there, it’s actually much closer than we’ve ever imagined.

“THE SALES ASSOCIATE GREETS YOU BY NAME AND ASKS WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR. WITH A TAP, SHE SUMMONS A ROBOTIC HELPER”

Rewind to today and, while BB-8s and pods might seem far-fetched, a lot of this technology either already exists or is in development, fast on its way to becoming standard aspects of any shopping experience. In the US, Reformation’s new, high-tech stores offer shoppers the chance to peruse the inventory on an iPad and swiftly find their selections deposited in the double-sided wardrobes in their fitting rooms. At Amazon Go’s prototype grocery store in Seattle, shoppers enter with an app and skip the checkout altogether. Walmart is pioneering facial recognition technology to judge when customers are happy or upset, and using this data to send out sales people or open more checkouts.

The department store as we know it is almost a relic. In the future, big box stores and department stores will be replaced by more niche approaches. In London, Browns has opened Browns East, a store with a gender-neutral approach to merchandising, no fixed rails and a design that transforms every two to three weeks. Nordstrom in the US, similar to David Jones here, has opened Nordstrom Local, a 280 square-metre store (compared to the usual 13,000 square-metre of a Nordstrom store) which doesn’t carry any inventory at all. Shoppers can try on clothes but will not purchase them on site. Instead, they’ll buy online and treat themselves to a wine as they pay. In New York, Bottega Veneta has opened Maison, a five-storey townhouse that feels more like an apartment than a retail store, where VIP customers will enjoy exclusive experiences.

The truth is, the shopping trip of the future is already here. “Physical retail has completely evolved,” says Jess Christie, the global communications director for Matches Fashion. “If you want to get ahead now and do something special, you have to inspire the customer.”

Every movement has its buzzwords, and almost any conversation on the future of shopping tends to alight on a few – namely “frictionless”, “experiential” and “personalised”. Frictionless refers to facial recognition and the cashier-free experiences at stores, already up and running at the Amazon Go beta store, which uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to scan items, match them with the face of the shopper and charge them to their app; and in China, where supermarket items are tagged with technology that allows shoppers to scan and pay via WeChat. Experiential means it’s about more than the product – it’s about creating value around the product. This is where Lululemon’s free yoga classes and Tiffany & Co’s Manhattan café (where they serve breakfast at Tiffany’s, what else?) come into play. So what if you can’t afford anything in a Tiffany & Co blue box? Chances are you can stretch to a coffee and pain au chocolat – and it’ll look just as good on Instagram.

And funnily enough, all this promise of change and innovation comes at a time when the retail sector is shrouded in doom and gloom. Headlines pronouncing the end of physical retail as we know it abound, and yet, Australians still love shopping. In fact, we’re ranked third in the world for shops per capita, behind only the US and Canada. In 2016, 4,000 new stores opened across the country.

Despite our love for shopping, customers are still demanding change – whether it’s lower prices, better experiences or products that improve their lives. So retailers – both bricks and mortar stores, and online – are adapting. The big winner? Us, the customer.

“I can’t think of a time when customer experience wasn’t at the forefront of a retailer’s mind,” says Zoe Ghani, chief technology officer at The Iconic. “This isn’t a new thing and top retailers have always known you need to put the customer’s shopping experience first. What’s different is that customer expectations have evolved in line with the emergence of new technologies. Regardless of offline or online, it’s all about the experience. Sometimes the experience people seek is a shopping spree with friends finished with a coffee and cake, and other times we want the convenience and ease of online shopping. The key point is to understand what the customer wants in the shopping context they’ve chosen. Then as retailers, we need to use tech as an enabler to enhance the experience.”

Online, this means huge changes abound. “The Internet of Things [that is, internet-enabled objects, like smart TVs] blurs physical and online,” says Ghani. “We could start seeing payment technology in unexpected places. We’ve already heard of grocery-ordering refrigerators and auto-renew car insurance, so what’s not to say our wardrobes won’t be reordering that plain white T-shirt we buy a few times a year?” Voice shopping – using technology like Google Home – is already here, but the next iteration, says Ghani, could be predictive payments for groceries based on consumption patterns, or even having our smart speaker recommend products that need to be reordered when they’re running low. Never having to remember to buy toilet paper? Now that’s living.

“ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE WILL HELP YOUR ONLINE SHOPPING EXPERIENCE… IF YOUR FAVOURITE WEBSITE SELLS OUT OF THE SHOES YOU LUST AFTER, A CHATBOT WILL HELP YOU TRACK THEM DOWN”

And if the physical store of the future is staffed less and less by real humans, the online store of the future will follow suit, with the rise of chatbots – artificial intelligence designed to help the shopping experience. “Soon, we’ll use better algorithms for more human-like decision making,” says Ghani. If your favourite website sells out of those shoes you’re lusting after, a chatbot will help you track them down elsewhere – for the same price.

One of the most exciting developments in online also happens to be one of the most mundane, says Ghani. “We’ll see a lot more simplicity in ‘chore shopping’,” she says. In the US, Amazon Dash buttons can be affixed to household products, and with one click, you can reorder that product. In Berlin, Adidas has teamed with the public transport system to manufacture sneakers with built-in annual transit passes. Ghani sees this happening everywhere in the future. “I would love to see a world where as a customer, my needs are met by the devices around me with little effort on my part,” she says. “When it comes to fashion, my ideal experience would be to have a device on my wrist where I can order a dress or shirt at the point of inspiration – a magazine, for instance – and have my size, fit and payment details plugged in already. It sounds like fantasy, but I truly think it will be the new retail reality.”

And while pure-play retailers have benefited from low overheads and the rise of social media, more and more brands that launched as digital-only players are investing in physical stores. Online fashion brand Everlane has recently opened physical stores in the US, and Glossier, Emily Weiss’s millennial beauty brand, has opened a store where shoppers can have hands-on encounters with Cloud Paint blush. Online mattress store Casper has opened a bricks and mortar store in New York where shoppers can take a nap to test the mattress of their dreams. And Zara is experimenting with “click and collect”, where customers can buy online and pick up their purchases at a CBD warehouse.

What’s happening now represents a move to a more sophisticated view: it’s not as simple as online versus offline, but rather a new appreciation that any avenue a shopper takes to come into contact with a brand will increase loyalty. Matches Fashion, for example, makes 95 per cent of its revenue from online sales, but the brand has found that customers who have four or more “touch” points – which could be via the site, app, magazine, an event, customer care, the store or private shopping – have up to 10 times higher shopping frequency and 15 times higher spend than the average client.

The most seductive aspect of shopping, old-fashioned or futuristic, remains: it’s the chance to disconnect from the everyday and waft through an environment suffused with potential new yous. The thing is, you never know what you’re going to find. But in the future, at least you’ll have plenty of fun along the way.

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