The year is 2027. It’s an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, and you walk into the last retail store on your shopping list. You don’t know what you want to buy just yet, but you know it has to be special. It’s an anniversary after all, and you’re still in the doghouse for forgetting to buy tickets to Taylor Swift’s comeback tour yesterday. Maybe the dress from that new Thai brand, Windup Girl, would do the trick.
You look around. The store is huge. The walls are glowing with an oriental digital wallpaper. In the corner of your eye, you spot a store rep staring at you inquisitively.
‘Oh, great,’ you think.
The rep starts her approach. Meanwhile, you turn your back and start walking toward the dress section, hoping she’ll get the hint.
You stop dead in your tracks. You look back at the rep. She’s smiling.
"I thought that might be you. Hi, I'm Annie. You look like you could use some help. Let me guess; you're looking for a gift, an anniversary present maybe?"
Your eyes widen. Her face brightens. You've never met this girl, and she seems to know everything about you.
“Wait. How did—”
"Listen, I'm going to be straight with you. Our records show that you've visited our store around this time of year for the past three years now. Each time you bought a pricey piece of clothing for a girl with a size 26 waist. The dress is usually young, edgy, and skewing a bit towards our collection of light earth tones. Oh, and each time you've also asked for an extra receipt. … So, what's her name?"
“Sheryl,” you answer in a shocked zombie state.
Annie smiles knowingly. She's got you. "You know what, Jess," she winks, "I'm going to hook you up." She checks her wrist-mounted smart display, swipes, and taps through a few menus, and then says, "Actually, we just brought in some new styles last Tuesday that Sheryl might like. Have you seen the new lines from Amelia Steele or Windup Girl?"
“Uh, I— I heard Windup Girl was nice.”
Annie nods. “Follow me.”
By the time you exit the store, you’ve bought double what you expected to (how could you not, given the custom sale Annie offered to you) in less time than you thought it would take. You feel slightly weirded out by all of this, but at the same time extremely satisfied knowing that you’ve bought exactly what Sheryl will love.
Overly personalized retail service becomes creepy but amazing
The story above may sound a bit stalkerish, but rest assured, it may become your standard retail experience between the year 2025 and 2030. So how exactly did Annie read Jessica so well? What Jedi mind trick did she use? Let’s consider the following scenario, this time from the retailer’s perspective.
To start, let's assume you have select, always-on retail or rewards apps on your smartphone, which communicate with store sensors immediately upon stepping through their doors. The store's central computer will receive the signal and then connect to the company database, sourcing your in-store and online buying history. (This app works by allowing retailers to find out customers' past product purchases using their credit card numbers—securely stored within the app.) Afterward, this information, along with a fully customized sales interaction script, will be relayed to a store rep via a Bluetooth earpiece and tablet of some form. The store rep will, in turn, greet the customer by name and offer exclusive discounts on items that algorithms determined to be of the person's interest. Crazier yet, this entire series of steps will take place in seconds.
Digging deeper, retailers with bigger budgets will use these retail apps not only to track and record their own customers' purchases but also to access their customers' meta buying history from other retailers. As a result, the apps can give them a broader view of each customer's overall buying history, as well as deeper clues on each customer's shopping behavior. (Note that the meta buying data not shared in this case are the specific stores you frequent and brand identifying data of the items you purchase.)
By the way, in case you’re wondering, everyone will have the apps I mentioned above. Those serious retailers who invest billions into transforming their retail stores into “smart stores” won’t accept anything less. In fact, over time, most won’t offer you discounts of any kind unless you have one. These apps will also be used to offer you custom offers based on your location, such as souvenirs when you when you walk by a tourist landmark, legal services when you visit a police station after that wild night out, or discounts from Retailer A right before you step inside Retailer B.
Finally, these retail systems for tomorrow's smart-everything world will most likely be dominated by existing monoliths like Google and Apple, since both have already established e-wallets in Google Wallet and Apple Pay—Apple in particular already has over 850 million credit cards on file. Amazon or Alibaba will also jump into this market, largely within their own networks, and potentially alongside the right partnerships. Big mass-market retailers with deep pockets and retail knowledge, like Walmart or Zara, may also be motivated to get in on this action.
Retail employees become highly skilled knowledge workers
It would be easy to think that given all these innovations, the humble retail employee could vanish into the ether. In fact, that's far from the truth. Flesh and blood retail employees will become more vital, not less, to the operations of retail stores.
One example may arise from retailers who can still afford massive square footage (think department stores). These retailers will one day have an in-store data manager. This person (or team) will operate an intricate command center inside the store's backrooms. Similar to how security guards monitor an array of security cameras for suspicious behavior, the data manager will monitor a series of screens tracking shoppers with computer overlaid information showing their buying tendencies. Depending on the historical value of the customers (calculated from their buying frequency and monetary value of the products or services they bought previously), the data manager can either direct a store rep to greet them (to provide that personalized, Annie-level care), or simply direct the cashier to provide special discounts or incentives when they cash out at the register.
Meanwhile, that Annie girl, even without all her tech-enabled advantages, seems a lot sharper than your average store rep, doesn’t she?
Once this trend of smart stores (big data enabled, in-store retailing) takes off, be prepared to interact with store reps who are vastly better trained and educated than those found in today's retail environments. Think about it, a retailer isn't going to invest billions in building a retail supercomputer that knows everything about you, and then cheap out on quality training for store reps who would use this data to make sales.
In fact, with all this investment in training, working in retail will no longer have the dead-end stereotype it once suffered. The best and most data-savvy store reps will build a steady and loyal group of customers who will follow them to whichever store where they decide to work.
This shift in how we think about the retail experience is just the beginning. The next chapter of our retail series will explore how future tech will make shopping at physical stores feel as seamless as shopping online.