What makes a retail experience fun?
Person 1: “I don’t think shopping is ever fun for me. It’s a chore.”
Person 2: “The pleasant surprise.”
Person 3: “Well, for me, it’s two things. The first one would be the successful shop, where I go with the intention to buy something, I find it, I love it, and I buy it. The second would be where I go shopping [without any intention]…and I find something unexpected and I buy it.”
These were some of the replies I heard recently in casual conversation. Retail fun isn’t for everyone it seems, and is a mixture of personal, emotional, and contextual factors.
When I attended the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, one of the sound bites that stuck with me came from the “State of Tech Retailing in 2013: Showrooming, Battling for Online Supremacy, OEMs Going Direct, Private Label and more” panel:
“What’s missing in retail these days is fun…giving customers a reason to just come in and see what’s there.”
-Tony Chvala, Global GM of Merchandising & Buying at Groupon Goods
I would agree, and have found that retailers could be working harder to inject more fun into experiences. I’ve since started retail funspotting, a new word I’m using to describe sightings or stories of fun in retail, not unlike the foodspotting movement that sets out to capture, share, and find great dishes.
A couple of my favourite retail funspotting examples include Stella & Dot’s trunk parties and the Bi-Rite Market’s approach to eating good food. One of my fellow Nuruners recently hosted a Stella & Dot party, which in my opinion borrows from the Tupperware party model, except that it involves jewelry and accessories such as smartphone cases and necklaces. The party was a success and everyone who attended had fun. Not to mention the buzz about the merchandise that has come up in conversations for the last couple of weeks. What I find fun about the Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco is that they set out to get customers excited about eating good food. The staff is trained to strike up conversations with virtually all customers and help them learn about the possibilities of the food in front of them (via FastCompany).
If you have any retail funspotting stories to share, I would love to hear them here or on Twitter @jenchow with the hashtag #retailfunspotting.
If you’re a retailer, have you thought about how you might inject more fun into your customers’ experiences?
It was a daylong congregation of retailers, advertisers, data analysts and brand managers who came together to understand how the retail strategies of yesterday are no longer enough. To succeed today, retailers must think differently to integrate, innovate and engage. I attended the Retail Advertising Conference in Toronto last week, and the keynote presentation from Mitch Joel of Twist Image delivered a profound message on how we ought to look at retail today. The themes that emerged from his talk, How to Reboot Retail in a Connected World, transcended traditional tech considerations, framing retail strategy in a context that was familiar and well established, and sometimes surprising.
The power to have direct relationships with customers has changed. Retailers are not just at war with direct competitors, but with its business partners too. The battle to own the customer relationship occurs with everyone in the food chain: the brand, Facebook and the retailer. Kickstarter is challenging the retail relationship model because its platform is built to allow brands and startups to stay directly connected to their customers. Pebble Watch and Pen Type A didn’t need a retailer because they had already established a profound relationship with their customers.
The power of data
Today’s retailers need to look at data as circular and semantic, versus linear. Customer research should focus on looking at who the individual is and ask, “How can we design marketing that will compel them to take action?” Consumers confuse privacy with personalization, but at the same time, customers want relevant experiences that are important to them. It’s a social contract with consumers, and they realize what they are willing to give out to get an amazing experience. Fab.com, a flash sales shopping site, built their platform on this social contract. You, as a customer, don’t buy from Fab.com. Customers join Fab.com and buy from the individual retailers. Fab.com is confidently able to put products on sale for only 72 hours because they know their customers will buy. It boils down to knowing what customers want based on the data they provide. Fab.com currently has a billion dollar valuation.
Utility or death
What value can you, as a retailer, bring to your customers so that they will put you on the home screen of their iPhone? There’s an app out there called Sit or Squat that locates clean bathrooms around you. It’s a value driven app that’s great for frequent flyers. And here’s the kicker – the app is brought to you by Charmin, a toilet paper company. The brand extended their engagement to provide utility to both existing and would-be consumers. Dishtip is an app that aggregates human data, and picks three dishes you must try at the restaurant you’re researching. LEGO provides utility, and consequently drives in-store foot traffic, through it’s Augmented Reality Digital Box. It’s a tool that adds another dimension to the experience that you cannot get anywhere else.
“Technology has started to remove technology from technology.” We live in a one screen, post-PC world. Joel emphasized the significance of the tablet, and the fact that consumers today are untethered. He provides examples of businesses that are attuned to this notion. Nomi is a mobile app that enables retailers to track foot traffic in store(s). Square: no more cash registers.
I’d like to say that Joel saved the best (point) for last, as this topic is a passion and strong interest of mine when it comes to retail strategy. He challenges retailers and brands with the story they are telling. In addition to knowing what story to tell, retailers and brands need to understand how to take this story and spread it cross-channel to deliver a cohesive brand experience. He showed us a video of Chipotle’s recent brand campaign that aired during the Super Bowl. The short film, “Back to the Start,” by filmmaker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. One of, if not the key, factor contributing to the success of the narrative is the soundtrack. Coldplay’s haunting classic “The Scientist” is performed by country music legend Willie Nelson. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.
David Bliss from Nurun San Francisco and Steve Tremblay from Nurun Corporate also contributed to this article.
After disrupting the retail industry with online commerce, the digital world is now attending to the more analog side of retail: brick and mortar stores. Retailers are rushing to bring real-world versions of online features into their physical retail spaces. The early adopters are already innovating with concepts like shopper analytics, endless aisles and virtual mirrors.
While thinking about such innovations and the possibilities of digital in store, our corporate innovation team and our San Francisco office collaborated on prototypes leveraging existing technologies, integrating them together to provide social features and services to customers within physical stores.
Our goal was to identify core social features taken for granted by online shoppers, and bring them into the experience of the offline store. We were looking for opportunities to integrate these features into the physical space, extending beyond the customer’s mobile screen.
The results are two prototypes for media shoppers (music, TV and film) built on top of a recommendation engine powered by online store data.
Behind the scenes
As you could understand from our eCommerce background, our first ideas were to offer our customers more in-store services that were related to features offered on retail websites. The two recommendations that first came to our minds were those typically seen online:
In a complete eCommerce architecture, those kind of recommendations often come from large and reliable engines used by large scale retailers. In our case, we needed something simple that could analyze tens of thousands of purchases made recently in a store, or a group of stores, and recommend products to customers.
To reach that goal, we implemented a simple database using Redis, a key-value store that leverages the typical datasets available in the most efficient way. By creating sets of customers and their purchases, we were able to implement a quick and efficient recommendation system that could easily push similar products and clients to our customers.
As previously mentioned, this database is used to provide two kinds of recommendations that are typically made in a store by a sales representative. As you’ll see in the other components, those recommendations are used in our apps to provide customers with relevant results based either on a product they have in-hand or by providing their client membership card and asking for recommendations based on past purchases.
For the techies out there, we tried the database on both Redis To Go cloud service and local implementations using a layer of PHP built services to communicate between our apps and the Redis database. The performance level required to scan through our database of purchases quickly drove us toward a locally-hosted solution for the prototype, but different requirements could perform better on the cloud platform.
In the Store
For inside the store, we’ve built two prototypes to leverage the recommendations. The first is a Kiosk that can be used by shoppers to find product recommendations, ratings and reviews. The second uses information beacons to identify and locate specific specials that are recommended for a shopper in the store.
The basic function of the Kiosk is to provide quick access to product information that shoppers have grown accustomed to from shopping online. This includes ratings and reviews from product owners, related products and special offers. In addition, members of the store’s loyalty program can access personal recommendations by scanning their membership card.
Ideally, these Kiosks would be situated throughout the store, readily available to shoppers at any time. Rather than standalone computers and touch-screens, we envisioned a deployment using inexpensive Android devices and a custom accessory built using Arduino and Google’s accessory development kit.
To create an experience appropriate for a store, we have made some changes to the way tablet applications usually work:
To ease development, we developed the application targeting Honeycomb 3.1, which is the minimum to support both recent tablets and Google TV. The minimal Android version our project required was Android 2.3.4, which is the earliest version to support the USB Open Accessories Protocol used by our scanner and printer.
From a code standpoint, the application is pretty simple. Apart from the connection with the accessory, nothing out of the ordinary powers the application.
To connect to the USB accessory, the application declares that it wants to be opened when our custom accessory is connected to the device through an intent-filter. When a USB accessory is connected, the application is opened automatically.
Technical side note: This intent filter can only be associated with an activity. This means that only the activity receives the Accessory Connected intent. If you are using a service registered as a broadcast receiver, this service will receive every USB-related intent except this one. The trick we used was to forward the intent to our service through the activity associated with the intent filter.
Once connected, the USB accessory can send commands to the application while it is running, no matter what screen is opened. For example, when a barcode is scanned, the accessory sends a command to the application and the application switches to the correct screen in response.
The application can also send messages to the accessory. In this way, the thermal printer can be used to print information about the products of interest. For the prototype, the information includes the product name, a map to find it within the store and a coupon to further entice purchase.
The Kiosk application is in no way a technical challenge. On the contrary, it shows how easy it is to interact with USB devices, even when they are custom made. To learn more about working with USB accessories, we recommend Google’s documentation on the topic.
Creating the accessory itself was also fairly straightforward. We used the Arduino ADK controller and version 2 of the USB Host Shield Library. Version 2 of the library is needed to create an accessory compatible with version 2 of the ADK (used by Jelly Bean). With these correct libraries in place, messages are managed on the Arduino in the same way they are for serial ports.
By creating a custom accessory, we are able to extend the built-in features of the Android tablet. For this prototype, we’ve added a barcode reader and a small thermal receipt printer. Further ideas could allow the tablet to respond to motion (turning on as customer’s approach) or control lighting of nearby product.
Another intention we had was to improve the connectedness of the experience when walking inside the store. The idea is that the user could use a mobile application to see the closest items that they are interested in or that have been recommended.
To achieve this we have built an iOS application that uses Bluetooth Low Energy technology to communicate with beacons positioned everywhere in the store.
Each beacon broadcasts a Bluetooth Low Energy advertising packet that contains the beacon’s identifier (think of it as the device broadcasting its name to its environment). This advertising packet is broadcasted very frequently and can be used by the application to determine the closest beacon to the user by using the Read Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) of the beacon. The closest beacon’s identifier is used to retrieve relevant products from the back-end and the items are shown in a list.
The beacons are made with Arduino Leonardos paired with BLE Shields from RedBearLab. By default the shield supports a two-way communication channel (tx/rx) between the Arduino and an iOS device with BLE support. Once the devices connect, they can exchange messages in text format (like a standard serial connection). We modified the configuration of our radios so that each has a unique ID within the advertising packet, allowing us to identify each beacon without connecting the devices. This is more efficient in terms of both time and battery consumption.
A modest starting point
These Store Club prototypes demonstrate how fairly simple technologies can be used to bring online shopping features to the in-store shopping experience.
However, they only just begin to scratch the surface of the potential available to retailers who want to integrate the benefits of digital services within their physical stores.
At Nurun, we’re looking forward to a future where the distinction between online and offline shopping is continually blurred.
For many years now “personalization” and “experience” have been the buzz in both online and offline retail. While retailers have been playing a game of catch-up, their customers have become far more digitally connected than we could have ever imagined 10 years ago.
The core need of the customer may or may not have changed, but what has evolved is the technology available to meet those needs. The need to touch and feel a product, or interact with it, hasn’t changed since the dawn of retail. But now we are entering a very exciting time where emerging technology can provide interactive experiences that are starting to mirror the customer’s natural behaviour. For example, some retailers are putting touchscreens in fitting rooms where customers can connect live with a friend and receive real-time feedback about an item they are trying on. How many times have you taken a picture of something and sent it to a friend for advice before you purchased it? The same goes for providing product information – complete with ratings and reviews – on the shelf behind a product using an interactive digital display. What these technologies are doing is enabling an interaction that is already happening, while also building loyalty and trust with customers.
I love what Intel is doing; it brings an innate human experience to life. Truth of the matter is if retailers aren’t providing their customers with the digital tools and transparency to discover products, check prices and inventory, and read reviews, the customers will do it on their own. Without joining that priceless conversation, retailers are practically handing their customers over to the competition.
Most retailers know that digital connectivity is about more than just having a Facebook page; customers are smarter than that. The trick is to understand each retailer’s unique mix of customers and tailor digital solutions to fit their needs and lifestyle. Customers today see a brand or a retailer as one, regardless of channel or business model, and are demanding that they adjust to fit the way they would like to shop. We never really left the era of “the customer is king” and that sentiment only grows stronger.
One thing I am certain of is that technology will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Many years from now we will be having this same conversation, only around a new type of medium. At its heart, retail is about meeting a customer’s needs. And when that happens, it’s a win-win.
For many of us, it’s been years since we snapped a roll of photos, had film developed and proudly framed our favourites. Today, armed with memory cards and smartphones, we’re taking more, and better quality, photos than ever before. This seemingly endless roll of digital ‘film’ has changed what warrants photo documentation. Photography is no longer reserved for special occasions; a quick scroll through Instagram will reveal more photos of cupcakes, cats and clouds than family portraits and graduations.
Somewhere along the way, we became more caught up in taking photos than looking at them. We may quickly scroll through our Camera Roll, but seldom do we take the time to edit, print and appreciate the images we’ve taken. Polaroid recently announced that it is opening Fotobar stores, a real-world extension of its popular online photo printing service, to address this problem. In-store, people will be able to wirelessly upload, edit and print photos from their personal devices or social networks like Facebook and Instagram. The idea behind the stores is straightforward: liberate “trapped” photos from digital devices and turn them into tangible pieces of art.
Now onto the bigger question: will Fotobar re-connect Polaroid with its customers? It’s hard to say. Bringing an online service (or product) into the real world offers brands the rare opportunity to showroom their own offerings. The more a perspective customer can (positively) experience a product – and even the brand itself – before making a purchase, the better.
That said, Fotobar’s success should not be measured by how many photos are printed. Rather, it should be determined by how consumers’ perceptions of the Polaroid brand change after interacting with the company. After all, there’s nothing like a positive in-store experience to attract consumers to your brand… just take a look at your local Apple Store or Starbucks.