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EDITORIAL Is this the store of the future? No, but it’s a start

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This week I was in Milan seeing “the supermarket of the future” – a COOP store in downtown Milano that is pioneering a new way to interact and engage with consumers. While I have more to write on this in the coming days, the move is a timely one and was eye-opening for a number of reasons.

COOP has worked extensively with Accenture to talk through what it wants to offer in its store of the future and, using a store in a new shopping area, next door to Italy’s first Virgin Active gym, the idea is to build a store geared to young, fit, hipsters who want healthy food and more over want to know all about that food.

To this end the store features screens above all the fresh produce, which, when you point at, pick up (or indeed squeeze) items therein, flashes up all sorts of information about that item on the screen.

I learned a lot: not least the calorific value of a lemon (17 calories, 1.6 g fibre, and 50% of your daily needs of vitamin C).

I also learned that most of the customers in the store hadn’t noticed the screens – least of all wondered what they were for. When I told them they could see the calories in a lemon, one laughed and shrugged, all continentally, and said “perché devo saperlo?” [why do I need to know that?].

The store also features a range of screens amongst the dry goods that one can search for stock and for information about stock. The details of what is in still, bottled water were quite a lively read. It has nothing in it. Just acqua (zero calories).

Disappointingly, the checkouts at the store of the future seemed to be the same as the stores of today – unless Tesco in Tring is way ahead of the norm.

Joking aside, while not probably that futuristic, the COOP store of the future did offer a glimpse into the mindset of retailers. They know that everything they know has changed and that they too need to make probably radical changes. But how?

Before our trip round COOP, Accenture – the brains behind the COOP deployment – showed us a range of developments that connect stores, experience, the connected home and more to outline just what is available to beleaguered retailers. It is all very impressive and, with my consumer hat on, it’d be lovely if all these things were standard in shops (and homes).

But out in the real world, they are too edgy, too transformative and probably too expensive for most retailers.

But is all this really necessary? According to research by Vodat, all people really want is for free wifi to work in stores. Its study finds that two-thirds (72%) of UK shoppers report they would more likely convert if they had free in-store wifi and could look stuff up at the shelf edge themselves. One third (35%) say they would make a purchase and another (37%) revealing free wifi would make them buy more in a single shopping trip.

Similarly, more than half of shoppers (52%) agreed that wifi at their disposal would make them spend longer at a traditional store.

While COOP’s screens are cool to look at, really what retailers perhaps need to do is just add robust wifi – and make it easy to sign up to: two-thirds (77%) of UK purchasers refuse to use brick-and-mortar store wifi if they feel the sign-up process is too long, says Vodat.

It seems almost redundant to put in screens, when shoppers are using their own phones as their access point. Numbers from SartUs show that Some 82% of consumers already consulting their smartphones before finalising their purchase decision, the trend toward mobile devices will continue its significant influence on the retail sector.

Of course, many shoppers also want AR and VR, but for now the shopping process could be hugely improved by simply adding better, easier to use wifi and helping them use their phones to make the process easier.

And that includes payments. Payments are the biggest sticking point with in store shopping. From grocery to high fashion, no one wants to queue up and pay. The more Uber-like you can make it, the better. While  Amazon, Co-op and Budgens have already ’blessed’ their high-street stores with ’scan as you shop’ phenomenon, it doesn’t need to be technologically advanced or indeed overly costly. Jisp is offering to do it with cheap stickers.

One shopper in COOP who hadn’t noticed the screens above the veg asked if she could pay using them – holding her pepper up to it, hopefully, awaiting a beep or something. Instead we got details of its calorific value (43 calories, 9% fat, 78% carbs, 13% protein). Interesting – but she looked a little disappointed. And miffed that I wrote it down.

While I greatly applaud both Accenture’s vision – as I say, more next week – and COOP’s bravery, there needs to be more done, and quickly, if technology is to save the high street.

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