Since the rise of eCommerce, retailers have fought to stay relevant with unique online and in-store experiences. As online shopping has become more accessible and personalized, the expectations have risen for in-person interactions.
Stores have to offer immersive activations to entice customers to shop, engage and share in today’s brand-forward ecosystem. Spending time in New York and Boston this summer, I have popped into many pop-up stores touting personalized experiences that engage customers past the point of purchase. At Showfields, which calls itself the “most interesting store in the world”, direct-to-consumer brands get shelf space in a place that feels curated, interactive and instagrammable. Down the street, Chanel has created an oasis of beauty at their Atelier Beauté, where visitors are invited to experiment and interact with the brand both physically and digitally.
With the expansion of brick and mortar experiences such as Amazon Go and Walmart IRL, a layer of technology plays into the future of the in-store experience. What seems like a take on the experiential retail trend is actually a play to introduce consumers to the evolution of retail AI. Retailers are capitalizing on in-store data to influence operations and customer experience in the way online search enhanced the digital shopping experience. Similarly to how Netflix recommends our next series to binge based on our past preferences, retailers can use data to personalize product recommendations, manage inventory, and improve customer satisfaction.
As the autonomous retail economy develops, venture capital firms are investing in the technologies built upon this ecosystem.
As this ecosystem develops, here are some trends we are exploring, with an eye for investable opportunities:
- As shoppers, we have all had the experience of going up and down the aisles at the grocery store in search of the last few items on our grocery list. Perhaps you went in search of a sales associate or even abandoned your search if you were in a rush. Companies like SIRL are integrating with grocery store apps to enable seamless shopping list routing, smart couponing and assistance requesting. Customers are delighted with efficient shopping trips and personalized offers based on their previous order history.
- Store owners are gaining access to real-time data that impacts inventory control, product placement, and employee utilization while increasing sales conversion and reducing operating costs. The efficiency gained in the store through self-checkout allows employees to redirect attention to delighting customers. In some cases, employee overhead is completely eliminated as with DeepMagic’s unmanned kiosk that allows customers to ‘tap, grab, and go’ for a seamless shopping experience.
- The proliferation of data collection created a targeted online shopping experience that has until now been unmatched in stores. On-premise technology such as Memomi, a smart mirror used at stores like Neiman Marcus, allows users to try on products and quickly manipulate customizations to hone their preferences. Use of AI-enabled technology enhances the customer experience by generating personalized recommendations and providing immediate details on inventory levels, sizing and fit details. Perch Interactive detects what products consumers touch and educates customers without the help of a sales associate. At the consumer’s fingertips are product reviews, product comparisons, configuration options, and online purchasing options. Merging the digital and physical interactions allows retailers to anticipate customer needs and provide instore service that exceeds expectations.
- Consumers have gotten used to the online activities that reward bad behavior such as cart abandonment. Digital advertising preys on the most high-intent users by offering discounts to encourage users to take the last step of converting. By contrast, in-store engagement has the opportunity to delight customers in ways that are non-dilutive to the brand or margin of the business. Engaging customers digitally during in-store shopping trips allows retailers to create complete profiles of the individual shopper. These profiles offer the insight to engage customers at targeted moments that lead to higher conversion value with reduced marketing spend. Retailers can refocus promotions and marketing efforts to create separate strategies for customer acquisition and retention.
Visual Search & Tagging
- Similar to a reverse image lookup online, visual search is enhancing the in-store experience allowing consumers to quickly identify items they’ve seen online or in the wild. Integrating with technology that combines computer vision and product tagging, retailers can provide visual search and image recognition tools for consumers looking for specific products. Allparel allows users to search for clothes they have seen in magazines or on the street through descriptive search matched with a database of over 1M+ articles of clothing and accessories. For retailers, Allparel automates tagging to create accurate product metadata that is searchable. Another company, Syte has integrated aspirational search to help users find the exact or similar styles of photographed clothing at a range of price points. These advancements are bringing searchability to a space that has been notoriously difficult to map due to variations in materials, fabrics, and color. Taking the guesswork out of your search for a specific color or style, Donde uses natural language processing to suggest a variety of words that represent visual similarity. Retailers have access to what their consumers are searching for and can react faster to desired trends.
Security & Theft Reduction
- According to the National Retail Federation, shoplifting, error, and fraud cost U.S. retailers $46.8B in 2018. With cashierless, self-checkout shopping the need for more real-time surveillance and predictive analytics is necessary to prevent fraud and theft in stores. Brain of the Store helps retailers take back lost margin to shoplifting by detecting suspicious activity and alerting store staff in real-time. Unmanned stores rely on a combination of cameras, edge AI, and IoT devices, such as Acutrack smart hooks to reduce shrink and ensure a seamless checkout process. Edge AI allows for constant inventory monitoring, threat prediction, and accurate alerting. The same technology that can create custom advertising for nearby consumers can predict the likelihood of shoplifting and alert store staff to ensure loss prevention. As the ecosystem of autonomous retail expands, the technology needed to connect traditional retail processes will be tested at scale.
Autonomous retail is creating a platform for new technologies to plugin, provide operational benefits and enhance customer experience. Companies aiming to play in this space will need to prove early value, ease of integration, and wide adoption as retailers are bombarded with a myriad of new technologies. Whether startups focus on theft reduction, customer experience, inventory tracking or other touted benefits, the insights provided should enable retailers to make realtime, strategic decisions for their business.
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If you are excited about Retail AI companies or working on something in the space, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more insight on the future of commerce, be sure to check out “Losing Control, Gaining Commerce” by Molly Schonthal, VP of Strategy & Innovation at Salsify and Underscore Core Members.