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Innovation Seen Defining the Future of Shopping

"Future of Retail" seminar at the technologically-friendly boutique Story pinpointed changes underfoot.

NEW YORK — Rather than focus on ideologies, Friday’s “Future of Retail” seminar at the technologically friendly boutique Story pinpointed changes underfoot.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Paying shoppers commissions for peer-to-peer recommendations, inviting customers to get involved with a company’s decision-making process and encouraging real-time product consultations were among the topics covered. Visitors to Mulu.me, for example, can recommend products they like and will in turn get a commission on sales triggered by their endorsement. Barclaycard Ring, a crowdsourced credit card, has card holders weigh in about how the card is managed and developed. The live-chat sales platform Needle.com connects online shoppers with knowledgeable product users who offer firsthand advice.

Executives from Gucci, Target, New York City’s Economic Development Corp. and the British government were in the crowd. As the 45 attendees were heading for the door, Piers Fawkes, founder and president of the trend research firm PSFK, the event’s sponsor, said, “There is all this doom and gloom about what’s going to happen on Main Street and High Street, and the impact of showrooming [checking out products in stores and then shopping online to buy them at a lower price]. We see it as a creative opportunity to create a much richer experience for shoppers.”

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One company forging new terrain is Neiman Marcus, which has NM Service, a location-aware app that shows sales staff customers’ preferences. The opt-in service also allows shoppers to automatically alert sales associates when they walk into a store, giving them instant access to their shopping history and Facebook profile, or they can hold off on checking in until they are ready for assistance. In general, consumers’ willingness to share more personal information, whether it be purchase histories, biometric fit profiles or favorite brands, will allow salespeople to tailor the product range they present to shoppers, said Fawkes, who recently presented his Future of Retail report in San Francisco, and to Samsung and SK Telecom in Seoul.

There will be privacy issues to be ironed out to avoid misuse from the sharing of personal information, as well as behavioral and transactional data, Fawkes said. And discretion is needed in terms of the actual technology. “You don’t want to walk into a store and see plasma screens all over the place. It should be more of a behind-the-scenes take rather than neon lights all over the place.”

Other innovative strategies include shopper coaching, where brands teach people skills, as is the case at Motomethod in Vancouver, where motorcycle riders learn how to repair their bikes. Story’s owner Rachel Shechtman said pasta making and mixology classes will be held in her store next month, as well as a “Six-Word Memoir Slam” hosted by the creator of that concept, Larry Smith.

Auto-curated shopping, leveraging algorithms to analyze social data and previous purchases, is also catching on, as evidenced by the social shopping platform Glimpse.com. Digital design platforms such as the Australian-based furniture company Evolvex allow shoppers to customize furniture online at affordable prices. They can also upload photos of their houses to show what the furniture will look like in a specific room. In a similar vein, UPcload has a Webcam measuring system that measures 20 points on the body to help online shoppers find pieces that fit. There was also mention of BagThat, a group buying site that asks shoppers to say what they would be willing to pay for a promotional product, then collects all the user bids and calculates a final selling price.

Individualistic as shoppers are, brands need to be that way, too, according to Liz Heller, chief alchemist of the consulting company Buzztone. “Piers started out by saying you don’t have to do every single thing. Decide which things work best for you and are possible for you.”

Bespoken Clothiers founders James Sleater and Ian Meiers were enthusiastic about the different ways to engage customers. “There is a lot in retail that needs to be changed. For a long time, a lot of retailers were always talking about themselves and now it’s all about customers. It’s so great that we’re seeing this huge shift,” Sleater said.

When they launched their collection, they opened their showroom for appointments and were pleased to find that customers love getting a behind-the-scenes look at product design and development. “There’s nothing to hide,” Meiers said. “Customers wanted to know what we were up to, where we hang out, what we listen to and who we hang out with. We have a coffee bar and a real bar. Our showroom has almost become a hangout.”