As you roll deeper into the holiday season, you’re likely going to spend more time at malls and shopping centers looking for the next best holiday gift. Now imagine you’re standing in front of a table of holiday sweaters. As you’re looking for a medium, you get an alert on your cellphone that the sweaters are on sale and if you use the digital coupon sent to your phone, you’ll get an additional 10 percent off.
Sounds a bit futuristic, a bit “Back to the Future Part II,” right? If retailers have it their way, a scenario like this one will be the standard way we shop going forward. While thousands of online retailers emerging in the past 15 years has changed shopping in general, the experience of shopping at an actual brick-and-mortar store hasn’t radically changed in decades.
Now that cellphone technology has advanced from the days of a flip phone, you’ll likely see more retailers from small shops to major department stores reaching out to us with coupons, promotions and other enticements as we shop. One way is through in-store beacon technology by start-ups such as Swirl (www.swirl.com), which allows stores to communicate with you through your phone using Bluetooth signals. I read Macy’s installed beacons in its stores, and retailers such as Apple, Lord & Taylor, Kohl’s and American Eagle Outfitters are exploring the technology.
I’m pretty sure retailers would have loved to do some of this new stuff years ago even if they still haven’t agreed on a standardized system for delivering something as simple as digital coupons. However, cellphones weren’t advanced enough or didn’t have enough battery life to support some of these technologies. After all, we’re now starting to see things falling into place where customers have the technology that is necessary and the stores have the technology that they need to make new kinds of connections with consumers.
I recently was on a shopping trip and I couldn’t help but think about how this beacon technology might work in the year ahead. For me, something less intrusive would be a push notification or text message that I’d get after making a purchase. It might include a coupon that I can use on my next visit. This would be a great way to replace the current paper coupons that retailers give out that I inevitably lose or forget to bring the next time I’m shopping. It might be cool to have the store remind me that I have a coupon available when I enter the store. It also might be neat to have an easy way to order an item I want in a different size on the spot through my cellphone with little hassle.
A retailer being able to reach a customer directly in-store always has been the holy grail, and so there’s no stopping this freight train. While this technology might be a great way for retailers to reach customers, I see how it might cross the line with customer privacy. So there should be a simple way for people to opt out of getting these notifications, which I certainly hope aren’t spammy and relentless.
For this interactive way of shopping to really work digitally, the technology has to become more and more a part of the core systems of the phones. Take Apple Pay for example. This has a real chance at working because Apple has a removed a lot of hurdles. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see a standard way for phones to securely store digital coupons.
While this interaction might be key for retailers, I’m not sure it’s key for the consumer. I like to go into stores sometimes and just be surprised by what I find. Other times I might have a specific thing I am looking to buy. Given that most people don’t change their fashion style very often, this kind of retail accompaniment might be good for shoppers, but it will probably only work best for people who are able to control their shopping urges.
And another problem is clear: It’s tiresome for consumers to have to use a bunch of different apps to shop. So if start-ups continue to find innovative ways to make this process easier for users I’m sure consumers will flock to these shopping advancements.
As for me, I’m hesitant to buy too many clothes online, just basic T-shirts, because I’m never sure what the fit will be like. However, I’m curious about these new and emerging technologies, and there’s something that looks promising. The new Spring app (download from the App Store), which allows consumers to easily shop Pinterest-style images using a retailer’s existing e-commerce systems, is pretty incredible. They’ve done a bang up job and even allow the use of Apple Pay to remove those payment barriers, and so I’m definitely going to spend time seeing what the experience is like.
When it comes down to it, I shouldn’t be surprised as I’m standing in line for a fitting room next holiday season and get a cellphone alert from the store that shirts on a rack near me are on sale. I definitely won’t be surprised if I get special links to shopping look books tailored to my style after making a purchase. And you shouldn’t be surprised either. The future is now, Marty McFly.
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