Between the growth of online shopping, the appearance of futuristic stores without sales assistants, such as Amazon Go, and the introduction of robots, it’s clear that the retail business is in a radical transition phase right now. And over the next few years there is little doubt that the shop as we know it is set to undergo a profound transformation. However, if you want to predict what’s coming in the future it’s often useful to take a look into the past.
The retail business has seen three major innovations in recent years. The expansion of the drive-through phenomenon, which originated with fast food outlets in the United States some 50 years ago, to grocery stores, saw the foundation in France over a decade ago of the pioneering Chronodrive, which enables customers to order online and then drive to the store to have their groceries packed in the car boot while they remain at the wheel. Meanwhile back in the US, Amazon set up two Amazon Fresh Pickup grocery outlets this year, with retail giant Walmart following suit in Oklahoma City. The second phenomenon has been the come-back, in opposition to the hypermarkets and ‘shopping malls’, staged by local shops where customers can make their purchases without having to take their car along and then search between endless rows of shelves. The third revolution has been the rise of online shopping, which began in the apparel and electric appliances segments but has since spread to groceries and fast-moving consumer products, as illustrated by the Amazon Fresh concept.
Re-thinking the role of the bricks-and-mortar store
Matthieu JollyService & Innovation manager
If nowadays the customer wants to spend as little time as possible inside shops, what are the shops going to do about it?
Matthieu Jolly, Service & Innovation Manager at the Echangeur, an Innovation meeting-point run by BNP Paribas Personal Finance, underlines that this triple revolution has been driven by the retailers’ desire to adapt to the changing expectations of their customers, notably for greater efficiency. “The customer wants to save time,” he points out, adding: “However, this new reality raises a fundamental question: if nowadays the customer wants to spend as little time as possible inside shops, what are the shops going to do about it?” Does that mean they’ll simply disappear? Jolly argues instead that sales outlets will have to introduce new formats and take an approach that goes beyond the purely utilitarian, with three main areas for improvement. “The first is about turning the shop into a venue for new experiences, a place where you can be amazed, where you can have a good time,” he says. This might well mean giving customers greater freedom. For instance, the Nike store in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York City offers customers the chance to try out its gear in realistic situations, shooting a few basketball hoops or going into a full sprint. Similarly, US store Pitch, which specialises in luxury furniture and appliances, everything in the shop can be tested out – for example taking a shower or drying your hair on the premises.
Another option involves using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. Given that the cost of these technologies is still rather high for the general public, brands will be able to vaunt their dramatic effect, offering customers a truly immersive experience. For instance, during a promotional campaign in Autumn 2015, The North Face store in Seoul, South Korea rolled out an initiative whereby it invited customers to sit on a dog sled, put on an Oculus Rift headset and experience for a few moments the life of a ‘musher’, being pulled through a snowy landscape by huskies. In the meantime, a sales assistant attached real live huskies to the sled, and when the customer took off the headset the dogs took off on a real race through the store. Similarly, in November 2016, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba invited its customers to put on a VR headset and be teleported to Macy’s store in New York. This kind of dramatic spectacle gives stores a ‘raison d’être’, creating a meeting-point where you can have new, fun experiences. “We’re moving from a transactional mode to an approach based on experiences,” explains Nicolas Diacono, Digital Project Manager at the BNP Paribas Personal Finance Echangeur.
A store from the past
A place for interaction and socialising
A store is also a place where you go to get hands-on contact with a product, to feel how it works.
The second area for improvement actually goes in the opposite direction, concentrating on what is unique about shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store – i.e. the material aspect, the customer’s ability to see and touch. “A store is also a place where you go to get hands-on contact with a product, to feel how it works,” Jolly underlines. He does not think that the general public has yet been entirely won over by e-commerce. Retail stores therefore still have a strong hand to play if they focus on their specific features. The recently-announced partnership between US startup Casper and nationwide discount retailer Target is a telling move. The hypermarket chain has invested $75 million in Casper, a high-end, exclusively online, direct-to-consumer mattress business. As a result of Target’s financial injection, Casper’s mattresses can now also be bought at Target hypermarkets. Despite enjoying fast growth, Casper has struggled to attract buyers beyond a rather select circle of people who are happy to buy expensive items online without first trying them out. Partnering with Target opens the door to a wider potential clientele, while Target benefits from having attractive products at its premises. Customers like to try them out in-store, and they now have a reason to go to the Target store to do so. Similarly, French home appliance and multi-media store Boulanger is setting up areas within its stores where customers can try out all its products.
The third area for development is turning the store into a place for interaction and socialising. “Many people go shopping as a way of getting out of the house. Shopping malls in the United States are now widely used as a place where young people can meet up,” points out Matthieu Jolly. Amazon showed that it has fully understood this phenomenon when it acquired natural and organic food company Whole Foods Market, a brand known for its community feel and its pleasant stores where people enjoy walking around, up and down the aisles.
“However, making customers feel welcome isn’t enough, you also have to teach them something", argues Jolly. Carrefour’s store in Villiers en Bière, in the Greater Paris region, now offers classes in cooking, wine-making and make-up.
Meanwhile French postal service La Poste provides premises for would-be drivers to take the written part of their driving test, and other companies are setting up co-working facilities.
The Virgin Megastore in London has combined these three trends. Customers are hailed in the street by a hologram of Richard Branson, and then welcomed inside the stores by hostesses. They can then go downstairs where they’ll find a bar, a café, a piano, a relaxing space with armchairs, TV screens, and even a real-life Virgin Atlantic business premium cabin where they can watch the sky go by through the porthole windows. Children can play on the consoles at the video games space. You can even rent part of the premises for events, and every Friday evening a film is screened.
More efficient, better-managed stores
Digital project manager
at Echangeur BNP Paribas
We are entering the era of ambient shopping, where everything will be interactive
The store of the future will therefore play a different role from the one we know today and will moreover provide customers with a more efficient shopping experience. In the medium term, there will no doubt be many AR-based experiences on offer. Using a future version of Google Glass or the Oculus headset, tomorrow’s consumers will be able to navigate around the supermarket aisles and see the products they are interested in highlighted in front of them. These might be food items corresponding to a diet – vegetarian, gluten-free, stone-age diet, and so on – or the products they need for a cooking recipe, suggested by their personalised virtual assistant, depending on what they already have in their connected refrigerator. Also highlighted might be the wines that go well with the dish a customer intends to cook. “We’re entering the era of ambient shopping, where everything will be interactive,” predicts Nicolas Diacono, who sees the advent of this technology in ten to fifteen years’ time.
Yet another area for potential improvement is the checkout process. “The checkout queue remains today the least enjoyable part of the in-store experience. Streamlining this process, reinventing the payment procedure, will be one of the most important innovations,” stresses Nicolas Diacono. This means allowing customers to leave the shop without first having to go through the checkout. The items in their trolley would be recognised and tallied up on the customer’s smartphone app. Says Diacono: “This is for instance what Amazon is aiming for with Amazon Go, but the technology isn’t yet sufficiently mature. The costs are still too significant for this to be a profitable approach for a shop.” So the right system still needs to be developed. Explains Matthieu Jolly: “There already exists a technology that enables a retailer to automatically recognise the items in your basket when you pass the checkout – RFID, which is used by for example Nespresso. So it’s technically feasible to scan your selected articles, pay with your smartphone and leave the shop. However, for this to work, all the products on sale would need to be fitted with an RFID chip, which is still far too expensive for all the items purchased at a grocery outlet.”
The store will be optimised by drawing on a threefold data input based on the customer’s needs, the environment and the store itself.
Lastly, the store of the future will be optimally organised through the use of advanced technologies. It will be equipped with robots set up to answer basic questions – this is what Pepper does already – or to direct customers to the products they are looking for, while human sales assistants focus on giving more sophisticated advice and on building the customer relationship. Robots will also no doubt have a role to play at the store’s warehouses. Supplying and restocking will be made easier through the use of AI and image recognition technology. As they move along the shelves, robots will be able to scan products and identify those that are out of stock, a task that could equally be carried out by connected trolleys equipped with cameras. Overall, sophisticated data management will enable retailers to get a better grip on what lies ahead. Nicolas Diacono foresees: “The store will be optimised by drawing on a threefold data input based on the customer’s needs, the environment – i.e. the weather, events that are taking place in the town, etc. – and the store itself. They will thus be able to make more accurate stock forecasts, taking into consideration seasonal factors, and will therefore be more efficient at restocking. A Decathlon store would for example be able to predict three or four days in advance how many bicycles it will sell during the coming weekend.”. So at the end of the day, this well-established social institution that we know as a ‘retail store’ still appears to have a bright future.