The future of digital retail part 1: Revolutionising the in-store experience

Wednesday 14th December 2016

Jonathan Sands, chairman of Elmwood, explains to Gordons how digital technology is helping to revitalise the in-store brand experience.

I was speaking recently at the Global Futures Forum and Martin Raymond from the organisers The Future Laboratory pointed out to me that technology is moving so fast that we are in danger of “tripping over the future”. I thought this was a fabulous expression as it typified my own angst about what is next and how I might keep pace with our ever-changing world.

It is true; every single day I see new technologies emerging from all corners of the world. But, more importantly, I also see new creative ways of applying and activating these technologies to drive greater customer footfall. And this is the real sea change.

Misplaced fears

Over recent years many have been proclaiming the death of the high street as online and mobile platforms drive greater share of sales. It is true, of course, that online is growing, but my belief is that technology is not the nemesis of the high street, but rather the salvation of it.

We live in a world where consumers and especially millennials are demanding experiences ahead of chattels. As a result, the retailers who are getting it right are those that combine traditional bricks with online to create a joined-up brand experience.

The cutting edge

Recently I visited the new Samsung store in New York. What was interesting was the fact that the only product you could actually buy in the store was a coffee and a muffin. The rest of the store was an immersive brand experience designed to entertain and educate consumers about the joys and possibilities offered by the Samsung portfolio of products. My favourite was a virtual reality rollercoaster experience.

The experience is something you cannot get online – namely the opportunity to drive footfall by creating a brand experience. VR also allows products to be tested in a more life-like scenario. For example, visit your local country outfitting store and you can sit on a horse saddle and put on the VR headset. You will then be transported to a trip around the countryside, leaping fences to test the fit and feel of the saddle of your choice. It is the application of technology that is the key to retail success.

Living in the revolution

Our world has been revolutionised by ‘having an app for that’ and none more so than those using geolocation software. Uber is perhaps the obvious example but retailers can embrace this technology too in order to drive footfall and convert footfall once in store. We are starting to see the use of ‘hijack’ apps where store operators can see when customers are about to cross the threshold of a competitor’s store. As target consumers do so, an alert is triggered on their mobile with a special offer encouraging them to turn around and come back to their own store to get a better deal. It could be a massive discount or a free item based on their knowledge of their purchase behaviour.

New in-store experiences

We are seeing this start to happen in store, too. Gone are the days of analogue printed point of sale. Today we are seeing intelligent interactive point of sale that recognises you as an individual as you pass by the appropriate aisle and engages you as a digital shop assistant. “Hi Jonathan, how are you today? We know you like product X and as you are here we thought we’d like to offer you 20 per cent off here and now. Please pick up a six pack in this aisle and you will find a voucher on your mobile that we have just pinged to you. Thanks for coming in!”

And then, if the pack you pick up has an embedded RFID tag within it, you could soon be seeing the day when there is no need for a checkout at all. You simply walk out of the store with all your goods and – as you leave the building – a scanner picks up all the RFID tags in your bag and instantly debits your credit card. Sorry checkout operators, but your days are numbered!

So there you have it. The battleground for retail over the next few years will be fought by those offering a joined up online/offline experience. We will also start to see the growth of retail clubs with unique product offers and services to avoid price comparison and drive brand loyalty. Indeed, far from digital technologies being the death of the high street, I believe we will see many high streets born again.

Jonathan Sands OBE is chairman of global brand design consultancy Elmwood. For more information, visit