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Power to the people

Today's shoppers are more techno-savvy and hands-on than ever. Penelope Ody looks at how advances in technology are changing their in-store experience

Your customer is a little unsure of the outfit. Does it really suit her? Is it her colour? Will it match the hat? Is it in keeping with next season's look? In the past, it would have taken all the retail skills and soothing noises you could muster to persuade her that the outfit was just right. Not any more.

Today, she can "phone a friend" and beam a digital image to her nearest and dearest for a second opinion. She can check the designer's website from her mobile to see what the total collection looks like, and could even persuade someone at home to retrieve said hat, snap it and send her the image to review the look.

Retailers may talk of multi-channel shopping, but in reality, advances in technology are affecting life in-store just as much as on the web. Any retailer that thinks otherwise - no matter what age group they target - will soon discover that their customers' technical know-how outstrips their own.

The Retail Solutions 2007 show - held last month in Birmingham - provided a tantalising glimpse of future life in-store. On show at the event were, for example, two clever "magic mirrors". One, by RetailCam, combines a digital camera and tablet PC, while the other, from The Big Space, focuses more on RFID tags and communications with sales staff.

RetailCam's mirror offers a digital camera neatly located behind a conventional mirror, which photographs a customer wearing their new outfit. A secure ID code is then generated on the tablet PC, which the customer can either send as a text message or email to her chosen friends and loved ones. By activating the code, these remote viewers can view images of the customer - wearing the new garment - on their phone or computer and deliver instant feedback on whether the garment looks good or not.

"You can use any sort of touch-screen tablet with the system, and you can also save images of different garments to send to your own computer to review, which would be ideal for someone trying on wedding dresses, for example," says RetailCam director Melissa Kao. The Magic Mirror is priced at just under £3,000 and Kao has already signed up an independent fashion boutique, opening later this month, as her first customer.

Over at The Big Space, director Frank Dekker says his "magic mirror" is already being piloted by two US retailers, with three European fashion chains likely to start testing the system soon. The mirror is designed to read RFID tags on garments, enabling shoppers in changing rooms to use the system to communicate with sales staff, who pick up messages on a hand-held PDA (personal digital assistant) asking them to bring alternative colourways or sizes.

The mirror also screens promotional videos triggered by the tags. If a customer tries on a jacket, for example, they may find themselves watching a video of the designer or brand owner saying how they envisaged the jacket being worn with a particular shirt, trousers or dress, and how the look encapsulates whatever story or image the designer had in mind.

"It can be difficult for designers and brand owners to get their message across to the end consumer in-store," says Dekker. "This way the whole story and information about the look can be relayed directly to customers as they try on an item."

A few years ago such in-store technology may have been ignored by most shoppers, but today's more technically minded consumers are happy to go hands on. A recent survey of shoppers in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, carried out by IT firm Fujitsu Services, found that 67% agreed with the statement "technology and automated services are here to improve the efficiency and convenience of our lives". Only 22% thought that automated retail systems made life more complicated and just 10% said they were uncomfortable about using technology.

To back this up, almost 25% of those questioned had used self-checkouts in store. Self-checkout systems are steadily becoming more commonplace in supermarkets, and Marks & Spencer began testing them for its clothing and footwear departments before Christmas (see boxout).

"I can see enormous potential for self-checkout in the fashion sector," says Fujitsu retail industry consultant Sarah Kellett. "You only have to look at the Saturday queues in stores such as New Look, with long lines of young girls waiting to spend their pocket money, to see how they could enhance customer service."

While many retailers pay lip-service to multi-channel strategies, shoppers are already taking a far more seamless approach. "Self-service starts in the home," says Kellett. "You may see a new style in a magazine, so you go online to look at the brand's website and learn more about the collection and where it can be bought - online or in a nearby store."

The future of this strategy is a process called 'steganography' - the art of hiding a message within an image. Fujitsu uses a technique whereby a 12-digit code is embedded in a magazine image of a particular brand's product. A customer can take a photo of this using the camera in their mobile phone, which can "read" the code and link to the brand's website via the web browser on the phone. The customer is then taken straight to the ordering page ready to buy.

In-store, shoppers expect a similar high-tech experience, and are now demanding more information than ever about what they are buying. "Brand owners want to take more control over how their products are marketed to consumers," adds Sarah Kellett. "Technology enables them to keep their information up to date and accurate, and it can be accessed via RFID tags on the garment - as in the magic mirror idea - or by using touch-screen displays and shelf talkers."

The sort of information consumers want, she adds, is not just about stock availability and fashion image, but about ethical issues and the environment: is the garment made with fair trade cotton and manufactured in a factory that does not use child labour? "We're seeing far more interest in the green agenda, and you can't expect sales staff to know all the answers to the questions shoppers are asking," says Kellett.

Whether that information is delivered via a shelf-talker, kiosk, web-enabled self-checkout till or magic mirror is immaterial - tomorrow's shoppers will be comfortable to use whichever technology the retailer provides. Those that fail to provide it risk seeing their customers choose an alternative place to shop.

MARKS & SPENCER CHECKS OUT THE SELF-SERVICE OPTION

Marks & Spencer has been installing NCR FastLane self-checkout systems in its food sections for five years, and aims to equip all food departments and Simply Food outlets with the units within four years.

Usage rates vary, with some stores processing more than 40% of transactions via the self-service units, although the current national average is about 18%. M&S research also suggests that 85% of shoppers using self-checkout for the first time say they will use it again in future.

Each new self-checkout installed in-store enables M&S to switch up to three full-time staff members from till duty to other service activities. "If we can redeploy staff into service and selling, we should see clear benefits in both our customer service and performance," says M&S head of store operations Steve Finlan.

Before Christmas the company began experimenting with self-checkouts in gift and clothing areas of the store. Customer reaction has been positive, with small and easy-to-wrap purchases such as footwear and hosiery proving the most popular choices for fashion self-scanners.

M&S will roll out self-checkout for fashion into more of its larger stores this year. However, Finlan admits work still needs to be done on bagging and managing the disposal of hangers at the checkout.

"Customers choose whether to use self-checkout, and unsurprisingly we don't get many high-value items going through the units," he says. "But the tipping point for use is more about number of items, rather than value of goods purchased."

The retailer is now working with NCR on self-refunding units to cut queues at its returns desks. Shoppers will scan in details of till receipts and the system will complete an authenticity check and authorises a refund in the appropriate payment method. The goods will then simply need to be checked by staff for damage to complete the transaction, therefore cutting time taken at refund desks.

"We hope to have a trial system in place later this year," says Finlan. "The system will help us redeploy staff currently working on refunds and may also help us retain some of that refunded cash within the business." Possible tactics could include programming the self-refund system to print a time-sensitive discount voucher offering shoppers money off if they buy something else in-store within the next hour.

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