Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Special Feature: Technology in Retail


The Covid-19 pandemic has given retail a rare opportunity to stop and consider what we want the future of retail to become. Yet, while we wait for life to return to normal, we have seen two fundamental shifts in our attitudes and behaviour: an increased sense of empathy for others, and protection for ourselves. Here, Ian Johnston, Founder and Creative Director of retail experience consultancy Quinine takes a look at how retail will need to respond to these new needs of customers and find innovative new ways to create brand experiences.

Many of our new online purchasing habits during lockdown will remain after this pandemic. Some people have come to realise how convenient it is to have groceries delivered every week. Others realise that sending back a pair of shoes is quick and frictionless. As these habits persist, we might see segments form a clearer division between online and offline. The things we want or need to see in a store, will become more focused, and so too the experience we expect.

Our increased time online has inevitably exposed many more automated services. With reduced staff, many retailers have scrambled to update their operations to sell more online and incorporate AI interaction where possible. The stigma surrounding AI is slowly eroding, and we’ll see a greater acceptance moving forward. The unknowns of AI interaction among many consumers will dissipate. Like it or not, we’ll all know what to expect and curb our service requirements in AI-powered contexts.

Technology has become integrated into our lives by force, and more people are using video calling than ever before. We’ve all become accustomed to digital social connection. People are having parties and sharing a drink over Zoom, or dancing to a DJ set being streamed live on Instagram. We are taking part in cultural activities, normally highly dependent on the physical sensory experience, via video. Chinese streaming services are hosting eight-hour museum tours, and global viewers are attending concerts of artists performing from their home.

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Our willingness to use video calls means that we can receive human service on our mobile devices at any time in any place. We could engage in a video call with a store advisor or even personal stylist while on the shop floor. A Japanese tourist visiting London could video call an Adidas stylist based in Tokyo while at the Adidas flagship store on Oxford Street. Language, location and expertise are no longer barriers for customers or businesses. Using video calling, staff can interact in-store in the same way that we use chat-bots online at home. Experts can be available at the moment we need them. Store staff doesn’t need to be trained experts in every product or service your brand offers, because an expert to anything can be just a video call away.


In-store live streaming services are starting to be utilised by brands, but how can this evolve? It’s possible that brands will have specific stores used entirely for live streaming services to deliver a personalised, streamed shopping experience. Some customers might be ‘live-streaming’ to experience the flagship store from their home. Flagship stores, typically only located in major cities, can be made available globally. The launch of Nike’s latest limited-edition sneaker in a flagship store in New York store can be viewed live by a customer in Sydney. That customer could take part in the event; perhaps even purchase a pair of shoes then and there.


As more people adapt to the inclusion of new technology in their lives, stores have a great opportunity to integrate the technological capabilities that customers carry in their pocket. Several brands have their own apps, but these need to provide greater convenience and a more integrated store experience. Customers should be controlling every node of their digital experience within the palm of their hand. They should be using their phones to access product information, call assistants, order items and pay for products. We can make the store experience feel interconnected with our daily lives by integrating apps that customers already use.


It may be common for all major experiential stores to be streaming events live to home audiences via a designated media channel. How will this impact store design and aesthetics? The ‘selfie’ changed female face make-up culture with the popularity of contouring; it’s important what your skin looks like on camera. Instagram changed fashion culture with ‘Instagrammable’ outfits; aesthetics trumps quality. Will stores use materials and colours that translate to video backdrops above all else? If the quantity of video viewers exceeds local foot traffic coming into the store, surely what people see through the lens of a camera is the top priority. Will stores have designated sections for streaming content or connecting with live virtual audiences across the globe? Crowds might gather around this part of the store like they do around sets of live news shows. Or perhaps stores might become the ideal stage for product photo shoots. Imagine the synergies in customer journey, by connecting an online product display to products you display in store.

Technology has been forced upon us and integrated into our lives in many ways, none more so than through the use of video calls and live streaming. While spending more time online and attached to our phones, we have established a digital social connection as the new norm. Our readiness to use our phones and make video calls is a huge opportunity for retail. Customers can connect to stores anywhere, while access to knowledge or expertise can be accessed in any store, no matter what the location. The prevalence of digital connections will change the way the physical store is used across many retail sectors.

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Much of this article has been about projecting the possibilities of the future of retail. While some of these ideas might sound far-fetched, most of them have been based on trends already emerging well before any changes we experienced from the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact this virus brings to retail will not be unforeseen, just unforeseen in time. Trends already being cultivated have been catapulted forward into relevance and have been developed at an unprecedented speed.

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The nature of retail has already evolved right beneath our eyes. The consumer doesn’t distinguish between different parts of omni-channel or integrated retail – it’s all one channel. Retail is now following branding – it’s everywhere, and its many things. Retail extends far beyond physical stores and online websites. Retail has even extended far beyond just purchasing products to involve transformational experiences. Everything is merging together to become a new paradigm of many things – consumption, experiences, purchasing and immersive storytelling. In the emerging world, brands will need to engage all the senses and communicate through many dimensions.

Regardless of how we define retail, the importance of physical interactions has never been so obvious. Our two months in social isolation has shown us the importance of people, place and time. There is no better medium than the physical store to engage all the senses and immerse someone in the moment, and the pinnacle of retail experiences – escapism; forgetting what else exists outside of our present experience is what we need to drive towards. This is the ‘retail therapy’ we need and have missed most. The quest of retailers to become more efficient, frictionless or convenient has made us lose sight of the greatest asset of retail. Retail doesn’t have to be associated solely with consumerism and mass production, it can be a quintessential social activity where we learn, relax, connect or escape. Retail can provide this without manufacturing endless goods or encouraging needless consumer purchases; it can exist in a more ethical and sustainable world if we want it to. We always react to how the world presents itself to us. We rarely get an opportunity to shape it the way we want it to be. The Covid-19 pandemic may be that opportunity that retail has been waiting for.

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