“Hello, Mr. Yakamoto,” the virtual sales associate said to a befuddled John Anderton, played by Tom Cruise in the 2002 film “Minority Report.” “Welcome back to the Gap! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”
At the time, the scene’s take on personalized retail — complete with holograms and retina scanning — seemed far-fetched. So did Anderton’s mall stroll, featuring customized advertisements calling out to him by name. Turns out, the film’s vision for the future of shopping was prescient.
The focus on personalization and experience in retail is expected to only grow more intense this year. These retail trends ride on the back of emerging technologies that become more sophisticated by the day — from voice assistants and augmented reality to artificial intelligence and blockchain (a technology that securely distributes data so no one single organization can own or govern it).
Such innovations are informing a new, and rapidly emerging, era of retail in which the line between online and physical shopping blurs into a unified experience where merchants know what customers want, sometimes even before the customers themselves know, and are ready to serve them wherever they want to engage the brand.
That much was evident in Las Vegas last week at the Consumer Electronics Show’s “High Tech Retailing Summit.” In the second floor of The Venetian’s conference area, away from the fray of tech wheeling-and-dealing and the roar of Las Vegas exhibit halls, leading figures in technology and retail — from Amazon.com, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., to retail technology providers such as NXP Semiconductors — dissected the changing nature of commerce.
“The future of retail is the consumer gets to say what and how the product needs to look,” said Suresh Palliparambil, senior director of sales and marketing at NXP, which provides radio-frequency identification and near-field communication technologies for many of the biggest retailers in the world. On stage, he noted the customization and personalization trend: “You can go online and design your own shoes.…It’s going to be that level of customization that you’re going to see more and more.”
From DIY design to innovations like shape-shifting mannequins that can help fashion houses quickly create samples for an array of sizes, brands will be expected to offer more personalized goods and experiences than ever before. And Silicon Valley is intent on joining forces with them.
After 50 years, CES hosted its first retail track by way of a half-day programming event created by partner Living in Digital Times, a conference producer focused on lifestyle tech. The result was a series of no-holds-barred sessions where technology and retail came together.
“It’s that total integration that makes shopping,” said Robin Raskin, founder of LIDT. “You’re just going like, ‘Wow, this is amazing! I can just go to the store and know exactly where I have to go.’” She sees technology helping the retail cause, in particular, to enable new experiences and create value out of the data. In essence, to create a fun and satisfying customer journey, whether by talking to their speakers or cars, or putting on virtual reality goggles.
The micro conference signaled a seismic shift in how businesses of all types are approaching technology. It also shows the tech sector’s critical recognition of just how much it needs fashion experts as well.
The tech industry has seemingly woken up to a simple fact: Consumer technology’s vast potential is ultimately wasted if it can’t appeal to consumers. And no one knows how to reach people better than the apparel, beauty and retail sectors.
Consider it a meeting of the minds. Retail and technology’s trajectories are racing toward a convergence point, one unable to move to the next level without the other.
In concept and in actual real estate, CES made room for retail. According to LIDT, a 3,500-square-foot Retail Innovation Lounge on the show floor featured roughly 20 exhibitors. BeautyTech was a hot topic there this year. There was a roughly 15 percent increase in beauty-related companies this year, ranging from skin analysis tools from health and wellness brands to augmented reality beauty apps, like YouCam Makeup.
Fashion also made a strong presence at the show, with Fossil Group and its partners unveiling new smartwatches. Smart fabrics capable of quantifying movement nabbed attention at the Wearable Tech Summit, in the form of Levi’s Google collaboration, Jacquard Jacket, as well as Xenoma and Hugo Boss’ e-skin prototype promising to track activity during golf games.
This fashion-tech connection also showed up in the still-growing health and wellness trend. For instance, a new vibration alert for monitoring critical health situations was unveiled for the Spire Health Tag sensor for apparel.
And Frederic Chanay, chief executive officer of smart apparel brand OmSignal, noted that the success of his latest sensor hinges on the design of his fashions because if the comfort, fit and style don’t appeal to customers, they won’t wear them.
“That’s the first thing we learned at OmSignal,” said Chanay, who works with everyone from wellness providers to companies in the healthcare and sports sectors. “We had to create clothes that are real clothing first. My team — I have 30 people including scientists, designers — we spend a lot of time developing.”
Chanay’s sentiment was echoed in Vuzix’s design ethos. Its augmented reality sunglasses may pack a lot of technology, with its optical hardware innovation and Amazon Alexa integration, but the company held one truth above all else in creating the device: “…if the form factor’s not fashionable or wearable, the world’s not going to wear it,” said Lance Anderson, vice president of enterprise sales. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the tech is.”
AR glasses, from Rokid and others, signaled life in the category that some left for dead after the Google Glass experiment.
The tech for smart glasses and voice assistants is starting to get getting rather good and ubiquitous — even if not always intelligent. For example, is there any earthly reason why a toilet should feature the Alexa voice assistant? And yet, there was Kohler’s Numi Toilet, alongside its voice-equipped mirrors.
Granted, not all the integrations make sense. But it does point to where consumer expectations may lead this year. If everything comes packing voice tech, then voice commerce may no longer be an interesting experiment. It could graduate to a must.
As lead investor in virtual and augmented reality, gaming and e-sports at venture capital firm Greycroft, Jon Goldman has a front-row seat to what he sees as a “battle going on in technology for the next computer interface between voice control and augmented reality.” According to Goldman, they compete to usurp the aging visual display GUI, or graphical user interface. This matters, because it means its various proponents will continue to push the boundaries of what these technologies are capable of, and that benefits scores of related industries — including fashion, beauty and retail.
Voice’s ubiquity could put it in good stead, but if AR continues to evolve, it could solve a problem for e-commerce, in particular.
In order to close an apparel transaction remotely, for instance, “you need a way to model people’s bodies,” he said. “You need a sort of common language, let’s say, for the clothes’ 3-D representation on a body, so you can try these things on.” And, he added, it must go beyond just showing that “an item looks good…[but] that it looks good on you.”
In other words, for the retail industry of the future, one size does not fit all, and neither does one experience. An AR feature shouldn’t veer from a company’s identity, and neither should its Alexa skill or in-store environment. With artificial intelligence and all it brings to the table — including computer vision’s ability to read and understand images, and machine learning’s capacity to learn as it evolves — the data collected should enable retailers and brands to create customized experiences that speak to the customer as an individual, no matter where they choose to shop.
In this vision of the future, data is the goal and lynchpin tying retail all together. But who owns that data, and how are they safeguarding it? For a community watching the likes of Alibaba and its cloud technology, or Amazon as it enters an increasing number of retail sectors, the answers may bring no comfort.
This propels the largest and tech-savviest of the brands and retailers to explore blockchain technology, a decentralized system in which no single entity owns people’s data. According to Hypr’s George Avetisov, “Hackers can no longer have one place to get all the information, preventing all those big breaches we’ve been seeing in the news.” Everyone in a given blockchain network holds all the information, but can’t read it without a highly secured key that only the owner has.
Best known because of Bitcoin, which uses blockchain technology, the system offers benefits that extend far beyond digital money. Eran Eyal, ceo of Shopin, aims to use blockchain for supply chain management and to create universal shopping profiles, so that no single big-box store or e-commerce giant can own them on a large scale.
Those are lofty goals, but Eyal is not the only one exploring blockchain. Numerous companies are in various stages of researching blockchain, from L’Oréal to Mastercard. In fact, the latter partnered with Hypr for authentication, with the goal of giving users a more secure way to protect their identities.
Avetisov sees another, more fundamental benefit to the tech: “Online shopping cart abandonment is more than 60 percent as of 2015,” he said. “The reason for that is authentication is a pain in the ass.”
Indeed. Chalk this up to another way of improving the shopping experience, though blockchain’s esoteric premise and relative nascency in the enterprise may make it more ripe in 2019.
As for the rest, the big trends build on last year’s evolution as the innovations mature across a multitude of areas. But all together, they point to a new level of personalization, of experience — one that could hardly be dreamt of a few years ago, at least beyond the silver screen.
“What people imagine in science fiction, whether it’s a flip phone or flying cars, they reflect what people desire,” added Goldman. “And what we all now have.” Or will soon.