By James Pepper
Making predictions about retail is always a dangerous game. Many retail analysts were, for example, surprised by the good trading figures returned by Next, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons for the festive period. At a time of squeezed incomes, this was not expected.
But trading figures aside, what should we expect to see in retail during 2018?
The physical store is alive and set to be given a real boost by effective deployment of new technologies. Our research has found that 81% of UK consumers see the physical store as vital to shopping and 70% say they enjoy the full experience of going into stores to browse, see what’s new and buy what they like, so it is clear that bricks-and-mortar stores are still very much the lifeblood of retail. Those who believed ‘showrooming’ was the future of the high street may have to think again. Physical stores will continue to evolve as will the technology they deploy. Too much is read into retail failures and not the success stories. There are some amazing examples of retailers that have made their physical stores part of their online success story and others are sure to follow. Despite tech gurus predicting the end of the traditional till and a move to mobile payments, we see many retailers upgrading their trusted workhorse to the latest high-spec point-of-sale systems. Why? Because it gives greater range of functions, together with more processing power and enhanced reliability.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has almost limitless potential and many store chains are going to expand, or experiment further with this. It is commonly encountered by consumers in chatbots and voice-activation technologies such as Amazon Echo or Microsoft Cortana. In stores we can expect to see more use of voice-activation technologies by staff to provide instant access to informationvia a headset.
AI-based virtual assistants and applications will also remove a lot of queuing by enabling consumers to pay quickly on their smartphones. Our research has revealed that consumers like the idea of using AI-powered, in-store screens (known as kiosks) to search out products that fit their needs but which they were not previously aware of. Throughout retail, voice commerce is a hot technology and will continue to revolutionise the way in which we buy goods and services online.
Over the last 24 months the public has been moving from cash to cards for purchases. Yet while retailers and retail services companies have been focused on the move to the contactless card, I believe its use could soon peak before commencing a decline. We are on the verge of a breakthrough in mass acceptance of smartphone payments either via Near Field technology using the existing contactless payment terminals, or via smartphone apps where the transaction payment takes place on customers’ devices.
The picture is similar with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). VR headsets, which create an immediate but entirely artificial 3D environment, are increasingly part of the infrastructure of gaming. VR in retail tends to be restricted to providing spectacular promotional experiences, such as test-driving a car in dramatic landscapes. AR, on the other hand, will continue to expand. Retail will always be subject to unpredictable forces and trends, but if one thing is certain, it is that technology is now a key driver in terms of footfall and revenue. There is every reason to be upbeat, especially when retailers understand how to use technology.