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GUEST COMMENT Plug and pay: the new world of consumer commerce

More than 50% of online shopping is now done via smartphones and tablets

Shopping by voice while you drive home or sit on the sofa. Smart stores that make you offer as you browse the shelves. Wallets that no longer need opening, let alone cash. Supply chains you can examine for yourself. This is the future – or rather the present – of shopping.

Tech innovation has made the process of paying and accepting payments easier and more secure than it has ever been. The time savings, the ease, the ability to act on a whim, are all huge benefits for shoppers. The speed of transactions, the management information and the automation are all time-saving and opportunity-creating bonanzas for service industries, especially hospitality and retail.

The worldwide web revolutionised commerce, enabling access to the world from our desks. Then smartphones changed the world again, enabling access to anything from anywhere. More than 50% of online shopping is now done via smartphones and tablets, and the pace and volume of transactions climbs all the time.

So what’s the next big thing? We think that the three technologies that will shape shopping over the next decade are Voice User Interfaces (VUI), Sensing Stores, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain.

Voice, once we accustom ourselves to the idea of talking to a device, and reassure ourselves that we are correctly understood, changes everything. Progress has been significant in the last few years, with in-home and in-car devices becoming increasingly reliable, sophisticated and easy-to-use. The pace is striking.

As recently as 15 years ago, the IT usability expert Jakob Nielsen wrote, “Visual interfaces are inherently superior to auditory interfaces for many tasks. The Star Trek fantasy of speaking to your computer is not the most fruitful path to usable systems.” Mastercard are partnering with ToneTag on sound-based payment systems that enable voice payment supported by the security of blockchain technology. Transactions could scarcely been easier.

Today, experts estimate that half of all search will be done by voice by 2020. Estimates also suggest that there will be tens of millions of smart speakers in homes in the US alone by 2020. Siri and Alexa are the fastest rising new ‘names’ in homes. The Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey fantasy is becoming an everyday reality. According to Gartner, this year 30% of our interactions with technology will be through “conversations” with smart machines.

Our acceptance of the new is proven. In the pre-iPad days most believed that people would always want a keyboard. Now, our natural methods of interaction, voice and touch, are seeing a resurgence.

Voice and touch are, of course, personal. Little wonder, perhaps, that Bricks and Mortar stores are enjoying something of a revival. Amazon itself has opened stores. People may love the convenience of shopping on their phones or ordering via Echo but they still like physical browsing. Actually visiting a store provides inspiration and means you stumble on objects in a way that you never do online.

Now the application of cameras, smartphone tracking, permission-based access to customer data and processing power combine to deliver a very different, tailored shopping experience.

A simpler customer journey. A store where deliveries arrive on self-driving trucks, where shelves are stocked by robots, where items automatically reordered and where smartphones automatically log customer’s purchases as they walk. These “sensing stores” also have the potential to deliver a rich stream of customer information. How long did the consumer spend in the shop? What items did they look at before they made their decision? What are the opportunities for add-on purchases? What did they love and hate? The Apple-owned AI start-up Emotient can already monitor users emotions from the facial expressions as they shop. Processing this data on the fly could mean real-time offers sent to consumers’ phones based on their grimacing at a product 30 seconds earlier.

Brands often talk about “digital” but this holds out the possibility of a far more immersive digital experience around a brand.

In the future, customers might choose brands based not so much on the quality of their products, but on the quality of the experience, they construct around the product. You can see the beginnings of this in places like the hotelier Marriott’s “human-centered” app, which goes beyond booking and enables you to order more pillows from your smartphone. Marriott’s innovations are all built around a comprehensive understanding of human behaviour and needs. Human-centred design is increasingly popular. Pay-with-a-selfie implementations are a great example of a human-centered technical efficiency. The new BPme app is another example. It enables users to put in their pump number, the amount they want to spend, fill up with fuel and go.

Artificial Intelligence is already having an impact on the payments landscape and the applications are diverse. Google has been experimenting with conversational AI to facilitate bookings and payments. A near-authentic voice will call on a shopper’s behalf and negotiate an appointment with the shop or salon or restaurant in question. At Amazon, the new Amazon Go stores feature in-store payment sensors that are required to understand who is buying, when they buy and charging for it. Fraud detection is also being powered by AI, accurately ‘intuiting’ unorthodox payment behaviour.

The final player in this technological trio is Blockchain. This is far more “under-the-hood” and is likely to remain invisible to most consumers even as it reshapes their shopping experience. Blockchain is a distributed database that was first used to record Bitcoin transactions, but it can permanently record any purchase or event. It is currently used in interbank settlements and smart contracts and has huge potential for international transactions. It can also verify the origin of products, ensuring, for example, that coffee is organic or a T-shirt is made in a factory which pays workers fairly. Blockchain, in a sense, is a technology that sees commerce reach adulthood. Suddenly transactions can ‘leave home’ and happen safely on the move.

Jessi Baker, the CEO and founder of traceability specialists Provenance, recently told a Wired Retail event, “The Blockchain is an amazing way of brokering and comparing open and accountable information about companies…We are tracking fish, for instance, so that everybody in the world can see where that fish was caught, who bought it and where it ended up on the shelf.” Blockchain, Baker says, has the potential to restore trust in brands.

The technology used to be a bolt-on, an adjunct to commerce, bringing incremental improvements but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Today, global standards, platform-based technology, sophisticated security, friendlier interfaces and a better understanding of what the customer really wants are combining to ensure that businesses that take the technology of commerce seriously have a measurable head start over their technophobic competitors.

Author: Colin Close, UK managing director, Elavon

Image credit: Fotolia 

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