How technology is changing the retail industry

From guest blogger, Steve Blyth - founder and group CEO of Engage Works

Technology has already transformed the retail industry beyond recognition – now, almost every customer is an online customer, from your teenage son to your aging mother. The end-to-end customer journey now begins with online research and product comparison, and complaining about a product or service is as easy and public as sending a tweet or Facebook comment, prompting immediate action before reputational damage occurs. Where once businesses competed on price and availability, they now compete for search engine rankings and five-star customer reviews.

This shift from in-store only to omnichannel spending has forced companies to make huge adjustments to the way they do business – and those who have failed to adapt have been left behind. This has encouraged further tech innovation – virtual mirrors, such as our recent collaboration with Molton Brown on a ‘Magic Mirror’, which allows customers to explore Molton Brown’s exotic ingredients by taking them on a virtual-reality augmented interactive world tour, add value and excitement to the retail experience. Interactive kiosks and mobile-phone payments aim to speed up check-out and eliminate the off-putting need to queue in-store.

So what are the effects of these changes?

Customers are empowered with choice, meaning they’ve become more exacting and unforgiving than ever before. The pressure is on retailers to provide a seamless digital and in-store experience, provide free returns and cut delivery prices. Yet the net has also had an egalitarian effect – by effectively incorporating SEO, small start-ups can achieve web-share on a par with big businesses who have spent thousands on advertising. And online marketplaces such as Etsy and Mouth provide a collaborative platform for small startups, where they can showcase their offerings as part of a bigger, well-known brand.

Big Data is a part of this – retailers can gain valuable insights from using predictive analytics and methods such as retargeted ads. There is, of course, a risk of these methods being seen as irritating, spammy, or worse – a man browsing for an engagement ring, for example, may not appreciate his girlfriend being followed by adverts for the jewellery next time she logs onto their shared computer. And technology such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which allows retailers to target visitors to their store with tailored insights through their mobile phones, poses the same problem – use of the technology is expected to increase 287%, but will customers appreciate a call-to-action to buy jeans while they’re perusing the racks, or find it invasive?

Over time, companies will either finesse what appeals to what customers and what doesn’t, or we’ll simply grow accustomed to a new norm – in the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy the creative technological fruits borne of companies with an increased need to compete.