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Disrupting retail: innovation is paramount

November 27, 2015

David Eden   

Future technologist and product innovation

The Wired Retail series has now been running for two years here in London and, having attended both the inaugural event in 2014 and the one held this week, it is obvious that there is a great deal of passion from within the retail community for ways to continue to enhance the shopping experience for the consumer. The event is perfectly set up so that competitors and partners are free to approach anyone and have a chat about anything with the aim of increasing the size of the pie for everyone — truly collaborative in the most human sense of the word.

These are my four key takeaways from this year’s Wired Retail:

1. Innovation is paramount

The word innovation is often overused by those seeking to show that they are coming with new and interesting ideas, but in the case of many of the presentations and conversations I was involved in, it seems that we are seeing true innovation in its raw form being exhibited by start-ups and retail corporations alike. Experimentation, the essence of innovation, is returning to the fore with ideas that once would never have made it from the think-tank to the street being tried out on customers in real-time.

The best examples of this were found in the presentations from Wirewax, whose clickable content video system is boosting sales for multiple retailers today, and PopUp Immo, who, like others in the e-commerce space showed that the line between the physical and the virtual shopping worlds is becoming blurred to such an extent that they are having to obtain physical retail space to extend their reach to the consumer.

2. The platform approach to innovation

It became very obvious that the number and variety of innovations being brought to the retail space is increasing as more and more retailers add their own spin to attract and retain customers – this can be likened to the much vaunted Platform approach for cloud-based applications in that it feels like retailers and their brands are creating platforms of requirement on which innovation can be built.

Innovation in this sense is manifested by the use of technology or methodology types that are then tailored across the retailer “platforms” not by one company exploiting a particular specialization, but by many start-ups and even the retailers themselves. An example of this were the several implementations of the clickable video content technology type. The technology has fundamentally the same base functionality, but innovation in the use of this is driving unique niche brand-aware solutions allowing the retailers to retain their own identity. The solution offered by Smartzer, was a particularly nice example of this, providing clickable content without the usual visible tags.

Another creative approach was shown by Not Just A Label, who provide a pop-up platform for fashion innovation for local designers through cooperation with governments and cities – enabling consumer access to new and upcoming designers through short-lived events spaces focusing on the artisan community rather than just the items for sale.

3. New ways to connect to consumers

Apart from the clickable content mentioned previously, it was obvious that retailers are looking to extend the current omni-channel definitions and explore all ways to obtain and keep connections to their customers. Extremely interesting ways to use virtual and augmented reality are starting to appear for use in store (Valtech and VISR VR) which give customers the ability to experience products in a fully virtual world. The most convincing demonstration was from Cimagine who showed how customers could choose an item from stock and virtually place it in a real environment, walk around it and even examine the look of the fabric texture up close. Whilst this seems novel enough, the best feature was the ability to send the link to the decision-maker in your family and have them look at the item virtually in-situ and be able to change the colour and even the style to which is best to buy in store.

Beacons and hardware tagging appeared in a demonstration from Skignz showing how customers at any location could be shown special offers in a AR app simply by pointing the phone camera at the store front and seeing an overlay of todays offers, this was extended to show how it could be used to find people in a crowd (as long they have the hardware tag on them) and tag them with a floating sign above their head.

4. Immediate customer fulfillment

As always, the need for people to receive the goods they have just ordered online immediately was at the front of several themes and extremely diverse ways to complete this task were being demonstrated. The most impressive was a live demonstration of the Starship robot delivery system which can carry two full shopping bags automatically to homes within a 1-2km range of the store – whether their claim that the cameras, speaker, microphone and locked lid will prevent the local youth stealing the contents (or event the whole device) remains to be seen!

In parallel to the main event, a startup pitch competition was being run and the winner of this, who pitched to the main conference at the very end, was a micro-distribution hub idea from CommonSense Robotics. They claimed that a team of hundreds of robots in very small local distribution centres could guarantee delivery in less than one hour – although when pressed they said it was all to secret to explain exactly how this was going to work.

Of course, delivery drones were still being pitched, but I’m not that impressed by solving the “where they can actually deliver to” question by stating that it will be to designated areas and goods will most likely be dropped by strings as they can’t land. I’m think I might as well walk to the shop as walk to a drop zone.

Which trends in retail do you think will take off? Leave your comments below. You can also follow me on Twitter @atoms999