By  on November 3, 2010

The myriad changes in retailing generated by the Internet, social media, the proliferation of smartphones and tablet computing keep building momentum. Fashion firms and retailers can leverage these advances in crucial ways, Piers Fawkes, founder of New York-based trend research and consulting firm PSFK, said Tuesday.

“The development of technology, and particularly mobile technology, is changing the way you can go shopping,” said Fawkes, pointing to the development of point-and-click services such as StripeyLines, which allow consumers to use mobile devices to take photographs of product bar codes anywhere, receive price and availability information and then purchase the item immediately. Other apps, such as Square, allow shoppers or vendors to run credit card payments through mobile devices with an attached peripheral.

“We call this the World as Retail Experience,” said Fawkes, whose firm published an influential report last summer called “Future of Retail” that was downloaded more than 100,000 times. “We can think beyond the four walls of the retail environment. It can take place in the street or in someone’s house. I can be at a party and take a photo of someone’s shoes and buy the product there and then.”

These new kinds of out-of-store transactions mean that retailers must develop rich, persuasive mobile content for consumers. “It’s content that provides information on services in stores and content that tells stories and helps develop the brand,” he said.

In addition, it’s critical for companies to develop search engine strategies that help bring their sites to the top of search results when consumers are shopping via connected devices, either iPhone, iPad or remote kiosk.

Another resonant feature of digital media is the ability of shoppers to receive instant feedback from friends, or strangers, about their potential purchases, even when shopping alone. Consumers can post photos from a store onto their Facebook pages and receive advice on whether to buy something or not. In Spain, Diesel has installed photo kiosks outside of dressing rooms to facilitate these types of social media exchanges. So-called haul videos on YouTube typically feature young women providing online show-and-tells of their recent shopping trips, along with product reviews, with top videos garnering up to half a million views each.

“Sometimes we have the luxury of going shopping with a well-informed friend who can give us advice — and sometimes we go shopping with our mother and sometimes we don’t get the feedback of what we want to hear,” Fawkes said. “Technology is allowing what can be a very solitary experience into a social experience.”

Fawkes noted this trend represents the third wave of advances in online shopping, with the first being price comparison and the second the improved shopping experience perfected by companies like Zappos. “This third aspect is about consumer empowerment and taking advantage of technology to control the shopping experience,” he said. “Companies should encourage phone use in stores and provide free Wi-Fi.”

A third concept affecting retail are bulk purchase sites such as Groupon, where consumers buy vouchers for discounted products and services as part of a large group. It allows strangers to take advantage of bulk rates and the deals only go into effect if a predetermined number of shoppers sign up for the offer. At the furniture Web site, consumers determine what styles of sofas and chairs are put into production by voting on them.

Companies can synchronize group deals with their own preferred sales cycles. “You can encourage people to purchase when you want to move stock,” Fawkes said. “You can also focus on your loyal consumers and reward them with group purchases. And you can test the popularity of new concepts or product ranges or brands before you make them.”

With a growing number of retail transactions online, stores can and should rethink the functions and missions of their actual physical stores. “Why can’t all your stores be as exciting as your flagships?” said Fawkes, noting that bread-and-butter mall stores usually don’t live up to the same brand experience as flagship doors.

Companies that are successfully rethinking the store experience include Apple and Disney, which is transforming its stores into entertainment hubs that promote interactive play, rather than serving as just showcases for merchandise. “Because of Web and mobile content, Disney can experiment with space, theater and storytelling, bringing in all the things we love about Disney,” Fawkes said.

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