Hannu Anttila, VP marketing and business development at VividWorks Ltd, explores the upcoming retail revolution – and how technology is changing the way consumers shop. 

There’s a new retail revolution coming. Physical retail is struggling due to pressure from online retailing and shifting consumer behaviours. High street retailers have counteracted by setting up their own online presence and innovating with in-store attractions and consumer engagement. We are also seeing evidence that traditional online-only behemoths such as Amazon are starting to innovate with their own physical stores.

In recent years, the hot topic has been how to combine these different modes of consumer engagement and forge a systematic retail strategy – one where the consumer can seamlessly engage with the retailer wherever and whenever and where the consumer experience is as seamless and comfortable as possible.

Some call this change hybrid retail, others omnichannel retail (‘a multichannel approach to sales that seeks to provide the customer with a seamless shopping experience whether the customer is shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone or in a bricks and mortar store’, according to one online search). The meaning is exactly the same: a seamless shopping experience across all retail platforms.

According to influential retail commentator Walter Loeb, this period of ‘revolutionary change’ is accelerating as the 2020s approach, with the Internet continuing to influence shopping in new and more disruptive ways. All retailers with a stake in the high street need to come to terms with what this change means for their stores, both in terms of methodology and more importantly, technology.

Loeb believes that in order to survive, retail must accept the influence of technology – the sort of technology that makes shopping easier, rather than tech for tech’s sake. So pointless, if visually exciting, holograms of floating beer bottles are out, whilst interactive touch displays that bring the Internet shopping experience into store are very much in. Integrators take note!

This sort of technological initiative is designed to combine the excitement of shopping online with a more physical in-store experience. “Technology is reshaping how consumers shop,” a recent edition of Forbes quotes Loeb as saying. “Retailers that resist the changes coming about will not survive. Those that embrace technology and let the consumer be in charge will thrive.”

It is indeed crucial to allow consumers to feel as if they are in charge. Online shopping, of course, allows consumers to buy at their leisure with no pressure from a sales assistant. For high street retailers to thrive they must transfer this shopping experience to the consumer, using exciting yet practical technology to both enhance in-store shopping and also echo and dovetail with the experience of online shopping.

Loeb predicts a resurgence of high street shopping by 2020, including additional outlets from Internet-based retailers such as Amazon – presumably because consumers will begin to feel more comfortable shopping offline again, as retailers crack the formula of physical-meets-Internet-meets-tech (Loeb doesn’t say).

In the meantime, there are many ways in which retailers can get high streets buzzing with technology, with the online journey continuing in store – rather than halting at the door where there are often no smart technologies to bridge the gap between device and store. Technology should have a use and a benefit (not tech for tech’s sake), so displays should be more than static shop windows, bringing interactive video and sound at the forefront too. They should also react to the consumer’s presence (via wayfinding), perhaps feeding back purchasing suggestions.

According to a whitepaper by Aspire Systems, there are five stages of in-store customer experience – Invitation, Discovery, Evaluation, Fulfillment and Extension – and these can be brought alive with the right technology. A thorough understanding of the importance of this technology in meeting customer demands is essential in an omnichannel environment.

“There is clearly a need for retailers to… invest in technologies that not only create a fantastic in-store experience but also allow shoppers to channel-hop without friction,” the whitepaper concludes. “To connect with the digital shopper, physical stores must function as cross-channel hubs that place the customer at the centre of action and provide experience on multiple levels.”

There should be a reason for the shopper to enter the physical store and explore the wonders inside. A retailer should be happy if a sale can be concluded online but there are many products where shoppers just cannot reach a comfort level without seeing and feeling the product or talking to a real sales person. An effective omnichannel strategy embraces these opportunities to engage and draws the shopper from online to the store by promising to ease their mind with meaningful and valuable visiting experience – a personalised journey centred around the shopper’s own interests, with real products to test and interactive elements to excite, inform and further define the products to buy – all with the help of a professional sales staff.

The retailer should not be afraid of losing the sale if the shopper walks out either. A true omnichannel solution will keep the customer engaged online, perhaps with the same sales person from the shop, and the sale can be further refined and concluded online. There are cloud-based 3D visual sales platforms that manage just that – including Vividwork’s Microsoft Azure-powered VividPlatform, usually associated with online retail but now dovetailing with in-store as a result of VR/4K ‘Digital Showrooms’ that bring the online sales/shopping experience into the physical space.

The Digital Showroom solution with VR and a large photorealistic 4K display transforms our respected VividPlatform sales platform into the world’s only true omnichannel solution for configurable goods. Our full 3D Interior Planner allows home cinema installations, for instance, to be quickly laid out with products, visualised and priced for each customer. The plans can be experienced in-store in photorealistic quality on large 4K screens or even fully immersed in VR, allowing a true sense of scale and dimensions – for example, how different screen sizes feel from the main viewing positions.

VividWorks has focused on online 3D sales tools for over 10 years, and the cloud based VividPlatform has long been used for interaction between online consumers and physical store. The retailer or manufacturer can allow the consumer to use their web browser or dedicated iPad app to explore and configure products in full 3D. They can change surface materials and build up modular products, and it’s possible to visualise many products together with the layout tool and even show the digital version of the product in real space using augmented reality.

VividPlatform is widely used with high value configurable or modular products such as furniture, home improvement and kitchens. However, the new Digital Showroom extends VividPlatform into a full omnichannel sales solution.

Digital Showroom means any digital sales aids in-store. These may include digital signage but more and more we are seeing interactive product showcases that engage the customer more effectively. These can be smaller touch kiosks or even large video walls. Often these are made into full attractions, which aim to draw customers in and keep them there longer.

Digital Showroom offers a fully personalised experience in full photorealistic 3D to allow the customer to virtually see and configure and design the product before buying. This includes VR with a high-end head-mounted display such as HTC Vive, allowing an engaging and immersive experience where the customer enjoys a true-to-life feel of how the product looks from all angles and how it would fit in a physical space.

It also includes a photorealistic large screen experience with a 4K display or video wall, offering realtime high quality-rendering technology and unprecedented photorealistic image quality, making products look astonishingly good when showed on a high quality high resolution display.

Finally, our single user display kiosk or product pod offers high quality photorealistic rendering, allowing retailers to adapt the 3D product configurator into a self-service kiosk or use it as a sales tool in a sales suite. The high quality and high performance allows even large and complex product combinations to be visualised effectively.

All of the VividPlatform Digital Showroom applications connect to the same cloud-based VividPlatform, allowing the seamless transition from the physical store to online and back. A customer can start their product designs in the physical store and choose to continue later at home. The personal design is stored in the VividPlatform cloud and can be accessed with a web browser or an iPad app. After making further changes, the customer can send the design back to the sales person for further questions and quoting.

Alternatively, the customer may start their purchase experience at home and choose a local store to go and experience the design in full virtual reality. The design and the quote becomes portable and can follow the customer when in-store, at home or when mobile. Sharing capabilities allow the customer to solicit opinions from family and friends so that a comfortable purchase decision can be taken faster.

Thanks to VividPlatform Digital Showroom, consumers can remain engaged with retailers at all times, whether in-store, online or through mobile. It’s the ultimate omnichannel tool for the omnichannel retail revolution: the only true omnichannel solution for configurable goods in the world.