Pokémon GO

In 2017, expect technology to cater to — and imitate — humans, as robots get smarter and customers expect personalized, on-demand service.

The past year was one for retailers to kick the tires of emerging tech such as chatbots, virtual and augmented reality, mobile payments and drone deliveries; 2017 promises more implementation and, hopefully, monetization.

“This year will be about how to generate a return on tech investments — not creating them, but understanding them,” said Kimiko Thornton, who as senior director of innovation at Westfield’s Bespoke, works with retail-tech start-ups in San Francisco.

Thornton foresees fashion companies increasingly behaving like tech firms with rapid prototyping and live testing (often in the form of a pop-up store). One pop-up at Bespoke, for example, saw a 400 percent sales jump online after opening a physical location in Westfield San Francisco Centre, the home base of Bespoke.

Similarly, RocksBox founder and chief executive officer Meaghan Rose said that retailers will increasingly act like tech companies like Google in that they will acquire other firms to stay relevant while focusing on the core business. She has found that tech, and data, are evolving in a way that allows businesses to truly listen to what the customer wants, and to personalize and target advertising accordingly. She also sees it allowing brands to facilitate a community network among customers.

This is especially important when the customer’s inspiration moment takes place at home, said Lisa Bougie, who is chief merchandising officer at Stitch Fix, which, like RocksBox, shares its data with retail vendors and has developed in-house brands based off of in-depth customer feedback.

Rati Sahi Levesque, who is chief merchant at The Real Real, said that Facebook data increasingly allows personalization and targeting of advertising, and that the company, like many e-commerce pure-plays, will increasingly experiment with physical retail offerings.

On the personalization front, Robin Chan, cofounder and chief executive officer of “Uber for fashion” service Operator, said that tech such as chatbots that use artificial intelligence will enable brands to deliver customer service, rather than just transactions, to build loyalty. “AI and chatbots so far have just scratched the surface,” he said. “They should know what you buy and add on to that. I think we’ll see deeper things that build brand affinity.”

He is also predicting autonomous deliveries from companies such as Uber and Amazon, which has begun testing drone deliveries in the U.K. “The biggest cost of on-demand delivery is human capital,” Chan said.

The purchase path has become more diversified. “Consumers crave omnichannel shopping experiences with little resistance across the digital and physical,” said Doug Baldasare, founder and chief executive officer of in-store charging station provider ChargeItSpot. He predicts that the option to buy online and pick up in-store will flourish, and that retailers will follow the lead of Amazon Go with self-service kiosks and other streamlined checkout options. In the short-term, however, he said that fragmentation in the mobile payment landscape will hinder the speed of adoption. “Banks, retailers and credit card companies are all trying to control the mobile payment experience,” Baldasare said.

Finally, 2017 might be the year in which contextual commerce, which means selling at the point of inspiration on platforms such as Pinterest and Twitter, might finally take off.

Brian Marvin, chief operating officer and cofounder of contextual commerce platform Bringhub, highlighted media outlets such as NBC Today and Buzzfeed that have connected editorial content to commerce, and Facebook’s partnership with Shopify, which gives users access to product catalogues and purchases within Facebook Messenger. “In 2017, traditional digital marketing will begin to merge more drastically with commerce, creating the opportunity for marketers to merchandise their products at the moment of discovery. As publishers, retailers and brands continue to invest more in contextual commerce, marketers will see an uptick in return on investment,” he said.