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What was the last thing you bought online? Why didn’t you go to a store to buy it? Was it for the vast number of items you could scroll through before making a choice or the recommendations that the website or app pulled up for you, remembering your choices and interests from a previous visit, or the ease with which you paid for it with a card whose details were already stored with the website?

The online shopping experience is leaps and bounds ahead of the traditional experience in terms of using data and technology to provide unique and personalized customer experiences. While brick and mortar stores also have their own upsides, the move towards omni-channel retailing today is key.

So what does an omni-channel experience really mean? The term refers to merging of services and features of multiple channels in order to provide a seamless, integrated and consistent experience to users. It means bringing the best of online shopping to the physical store to enrich customer experiences and create new channels for revenue generation.

The reason that e-retailers are able to provide a vast number of superior and personalized features is because of access to a larger volume of data and analytics. Their algorithms are constantly monitoring your every step, from consideration to the point where a sale occurs. Traditional retailers need the same approach and connected products under Internet of Things provide a way to do exactly that. A digital transformation of store assets by connecting them to each other and the internet through means of sensors or digital tags (barcodes, QR codes, Datamatrix codes, NFC & RFID tags) working together with AI and cloud computing, will result in smart connected products at every point within a customer’s journey, collecting and analyzing data.

Many brands already have an online presence as well as applications from where one can directly buy their products. However, a true omni-channel retail experience is one where it works in tandem with, influences and enhances the in-store shopping experience.

A number of leading brands are also coming up with innovations to improve customer engagement and play to their expectations born from online buying habits regarding a seamless and hassle-free shopping experience. Here is a look at the areas within a brick and mortar store that could see incorporation of connected products to facilitate an omni-channel retail experience.

Personalized services
Analytics and personalized services and features go hand in hand together. Brands need to know about their customers in order to curate services for them. Data on a customer’s journey across the store, products they pick up or put back, keeping track of their past purchases and recommending more according to that, and extending coupons and offers specifically for them; feeding data of such nature into algorithms that perform analytics then deliver insights upon which personalized services can then be built.

Kroger has partnered up with Microsoft to roll out EDGE™ Shelves (Enhanced Display for Grocery Environment). Equipped with digital displays, these shelves promise to provide a unique guided customer experience. The solution will also utilize in-store sensors to identify individual shoppers and extend custom recommendations, promotions and offers as well as other personalized content.

Customer’s in-store journey:
The journey of a user buying things online is not too complex; browse, select, pay. If they are a regular customer, chances are the app already knows their delivery points and payment details. A similar journey is far more difficult to emulate inside a retail store. The popularity of Endless Aisles technology is a step in this direction. This technology is based on the observation of how some people fail to find a particular product in their size or colour. No problem! They can simply place an order with their specifications using an endless aisle in the form of an interactive kiosk within the store itself, and the product gets delivered at their doorstep in a couple of days. It’s a win-win situation; customers don’t leave the store unsatisfied and the retailer does not lose out on a sale.

Another feature gaining traction is “click and collect/return”, where customers can place orders through the brand website or mobile app and collect their items from a store at their own convenience.

Consumer Transparency
Smartphones are everywhere and 71% of consumers use theirs to conduct research on products before buying them in-store. Retailers can capitalize on this medium’s ubiquitousness and familiarity to create a similar experience inside retail stores. Modern consumers are also more conscious of how their lifestyle choices, including products they buy and consume, impact the environment and society. Electronic labeling practices incorporating scannable QR codes, RFID tags or NFC stickers, let the customer pull up expanded product information instantly on their smartphones, presenting more than a simple ingredients list, and allowing the brand to display the entire journey of the product from its origin to the shelf. These tags can be further utilized to enrich customer experiences by providing tailor made content for a particular customer such as promotions and offers.

Navigation
In-store navigation services are another example where connected smart products can contribute to unique multi-channel experiences. Retailer Target has installed store fixtures like LED lights which have built-in bluetooth beacons. Their app takes advantage of these beacons to locate users inside the store and guide them to their desired locations by pulling feed from shopping lists stored by the user on it. French Retail giant Carrefour in partnership with Philips has implemented a similar system, however using Visible Light Communication (VLC) technology instead. VLC enabled LEDs emit a code that is readable by any camera on a smartphone, connecting customers to the digital experience provided by the store through their app.

Beating the Queue
Amazon Go is the true embodiment of what a connected retail store of the future will look like. Customers in these cashierless stores need not stand in long queues for checkout as they can just grab what they wish to purchase and walk out. The exit turnstiles trigger an automatic payment from the customer’s credit card, which is already stored on the app, on leaving the store. Not only are these stores getting rid of one of the most annoying bits about shopping in a a brick and mortar store, they are also combining multiple sensors across the store to collect a treasure trove of valuable data. Weight sensors on shelves know exactly when an item is removed from the shelf, or when it is put back. Multiple cameras track and record each customer’s movements within the store. Computer vision along with intelligent algorithms combine to create a unique identification for each customer and separate them from others.

Traditional brick and mortar stores are in an urgent need to innovate in order to maintain a competitive edge by keeping up with consumer expectations and habits, which are constantly evolving thanks to e-commerce. They need to look towards Internet of Things and establish a connected and digital ecosystem within their stores which collect valuable data on their customers, data that can then be converted into smart insights, on the foundation of which smart decisions can be taken to provide sophisticated, delightful and engaging customer experiences.

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