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GUEST COMMENT: Retailers mobilising to future-proof the high street

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by Heikki Haldre

It wasn’t so long ago that retailers talked of ‘tech-savvy consumers,’ people who, compared to their parents, grew up with PCs, laptops, and then the Internet. Viewed as a new breed of shoppers, retailers desperately wanted to find out the best ways to target them and use their tech proclivity to keep them engaged so they made a purchase.

But, the truth of the matter is that these days we’re nearly all ‘tech-savvy’. Most jobs involve technology to at least some degree and any distinction has grown, well, indistinct. The unifying fact is many of us reach for our smartphone before we’ve even got out of bed in the morning. So, in retail, when we say ‘tech savvy’ today, do we simply now mean ‘mobile-owning’?

There is zero prospect of the high street and online worlds ever existing as separate entities again; mobile devices have connected the online shopping world to the offline high street irrevocably and, by and large, consumers love it. What this means is that everything retailers do now has to pass the mobile test. This goes way beyond m-commerce: the future of shopping is about using technology to make the retail experience more convenient and more engaging for time-poor shoppers. That might include, for instance, giving in-store shoppers the option to try on items of clothing virtually using their mobile device, and then to pay for the items they want, no fitting room or queuing at tills required.

As Mary Portas has said: “The only way for bricks and mortar retailers to compete with online is brilliant ‘real life’ shopping experiences … it’s about offering a playground for your customers.” It’s astute; most of us view our mobile device as a source of entertainment as much as a tool.

Most retailers recognise the massive opportunity that mobile represents and are now ‘mobilising’ to make the most of this opportunity. But there remain legitimate concerns. For example there is evidence that shoppers now use high street stores as little more than showrooms where they can take a look at what they might like to buy, before using their mobiles to find the same products online, cheaper. However, recent research released by the IAB suggests that these concerns may be misplaced: the IAB found that 65% of shoppers who use their mobile devices in-store were more likely to make a purchase.

Forward-thinking retailers such as Burberry lead the way in using technology to provide an outstanding experience for mobile shoppers, both in-store and on the web. At the end of last year, Burberry opened the doors to its refurbished and fully ‘teched-out’ flagship store on Regent Street in London. It holds the world’s largest in-store video screen, more than 500 hidden speakers, remote payment technology and RFID microchips in the clothes that transform mirrors into video screens and activate videos of the making of the garment or the garment on a fashion show catwalk. It is this sort of tech and mobile-enabled shopping experience that is the future of retail.

Big name designer brands are not alone in embracing the latest technologies. Many retailers now make tablets available in store so that shoppers can quickly look at what is on sale, order items that are out of stock and ‘try’ clothes on using a virtual fitting room. Matches, a chain of 14 fashion stores in London, is just one example of a retailer that now equips staff with iPads so customers can browse for items online in-store.

Marks & Spencer is another retailer embracing this trend. It recently launched a ‘digital lab’ to allow it to experiment with and develop new retail technology as part of its long-term multichannel growth strategy.

Clearly, retailers are alert to the importance of tailoring their offering to meet the expectations of modern consumers – who, according to the IAB’s research, value highly attributes such as convenience and the ability to try out a product for themselves when shopping in-store. In comparison, the top driver for making a purchase online is price, followed by convenience and the selection or availability of products on offer.

With all of this in mind, it’s clear that for brick-and-mortar stores to survive they must cater for all shopping needs by ensuring that the purchasing journey is as smooth as possible. Retailers can offer services like virtual fitting rooms to mirror the customer service provided by staff in-store. Mobile devices can connect shop assistants to their digital store, blurring the online/offline divide. It is these retailers who realise the importance of an omnichannel approach and are mobilising their teams to make use of innovative technologies to ensure that they stay ahead of the curve, that will hold on to their place on Britain’s high streets.

Heiki Haldre is co-founder and chief executive at virtual fitting room

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