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Mirror, mirror on the wall

Developments in technology shape the way retailers do business, so what impact will new innovations have on the industry in the next few years?

Keeping up with technology’s evolution is crucial. It’s difficult to predict how certain developments will affect businesses, but there’s no denying that new trends impact every retailer – and in a tough economic environment, staying on top of digital and IT changes is becoming an increasingly important part of survival.

Xavier de Lecaros-Aquise, co-founder of dress hire website Girl Meets Dress, says: “Some technologies will change the dynamic of a particular retailer. It’s a never-ending battle where technology tends to disrupt things. You’ve got to always be on your toes.”

Out of this world

Encompassing everything from Net-A-Porter’s pop-up window shops to interactive mirrors that allow customers to try on clothes without actually changing into them, augmented reality is starting to make an impact on the fashion industry. In store, it’s most likely to suit the middle market as suppliers report luxury brands aren’t yet sure the technology is slick enough to suit their high-end experience.

John Lewis is trialling Cisco’s StyleMe mirror, while Debenhams has used Aurasma’s image recognition technology in its marketing campaigns. Higher-end brands such as Paul Smith have also used image recognition in their marketing to take customers to more online content.

iPhone applications such as Aurasma and Blippar allow users to point their phones at images on advertising to get information about products, stores or promotions. Costs are falling and the technology is getting more robust, making it potentially useful for smaller independent retailers as well as for larger chains.

Video and other forms of digital content may not be at the bleeding edge of new technology but their relevance for retailers is starting to increase. Asos has made clever use of video by showing all its products on models walking down a catwalk. Stacey Baker, ecommerce technology controller at Harrods, says: “Digital content is very important – it’s about building your brand and inspiring customers.”

Ones to watch

The pressure is on retailers to produce increasingly interesting content, not just to attract and retain web traffic but because of the imminent advent of internet-enabled TV, which gives viewers more choice on what to watch by allowing them to connect their TV to the internet. While connected TV is still in development, it’s likely that it will give viewers more control over what adverts they see. If viewers are able to pick and choose, the onus will be on retailers to produce something they want to watch. “It’s an area that will become even more important,” says Baker. “At some point there’s going to be a very blurry line between the shop and the digital content.”

Marks & Spencer is one of the first to respond, having launched an application for Samsung’s connected TV, and the retailer’s video agency, Adjust Your Set, says it’s crucial to try things in an evolving media environment. Retailers of all sizes must increasingly compete with other types of content providers and some big names such as Burberry are moving ever closer to being as much a media company as a retailer.

Live streaming has also been used to great effect by big and small fashion designers keen to allow consumers access to catwalk shows. Etailer founder Stefan Siegel says: “Livestreaming gives you the feeling that this is how fashion will be promoted and exposed in the future. It’s a new way of selling the clothes.”

Personal best?

Using customer and product data properly has the potential to drive incremental sales and the amount of information available to retailers is larger than ever. Data analytics and storage is no longer just the preserve of the big names in retail either. Some data analytics services are becoming more affordable, and while analytics may not be as useful for the smallest retailers because they don’t build up the same volumes of data, the technology is more accessible for those with smaller IT budgets. Data analytics can help you tailor the retail experience for each customer. “The concept of one-to-one marketing – or personalisation – has been around for years but no one is doing a great job of it,” says Baker. “That’s something we are all going to get better at.”

Andrew Robb, chief operating officer at fashion aggregate website FarFetch, agrees: “Data is the single biggest opportunity for any online business,” he says. “There’s an unbelievable volume of data available but very few have the capabilities to leverage it into marketing campaigns.”

Socially acceptable

“There are now websites or services that might actually be able to make social shopping work,” says Robb. Sites such as Pinterest, a photo sharing site that lets users create themed collections of images, are beginning to achieve what even the biggest social names haven’t yet – a sales channel. “Pinterest may actually drive transactions,” he adds.

The site has started driving traffic to retailers, with users clicking on images of things they like on their friends’ pages, and the potential for it to become a sales channel is there. “Attempts by Facebook haven’t yet worked, although I’m sure they will because they’re smart,” says Robb. Again, retailers will only arrive at the right answer via experimentation. But as networks develop it will be down to the retail industry to think creatively about how to sell through them.

The technologies mentioned here may well become central to the way retailers do business but it’s impossible to second guess how consumers will take to new ideas. Few predicted how well customers would take to buying fashion online, for instance, while other technologies – such as Google Wave, the online giant’s attempt at social networking – have flopped. Shoppers often adapt to new services and technologies in an unpredictable way, and other new IT can creep up on retailers quite unnoticed. The right attitude towards innovation is one of the most valuable things a retailer can own. “Some aspects of it will require organisations to think differently about a whole host of things,” says Baker.

Leading the way

New technologies are everywhere – social networks can spring up seemingly out of nowhere and have a real impact on website traffic; logistics technologies such as those supplied by companies including Metapack can transform a retailer’s supply chain; delivery services are finally starting to meet customers’ expectations – Aurora Fashions, owner of womenswear retailers Coast, Warehouse and Oasis, is working with online delivery service Shutl to introduce 90-minute delivery slots.

Aurora is leading the pack in other areas too, working with BT to trial mobile point-of-sale terminals in each of its chains. Even RFID tags, which have been around without really taking off in retail for the best part of 20 years, could soon be used by giants such as Arcadia’s Topshop. RFID tags – used by Transport for London’s Oyster card scheme – allows two-way communication between a product and a device in the same way two radio devices communicate. The retailer already puts RFID tags in its clothes, and the potential is there for RFID tags to be fitted in its changing rooms and different music played according to the style of clothes the consumer has chosen. However, security issues have dogged the technology as it’s easy for criminals to capture the data transmitted, but non-transactional, more creative uses could be on the horizon.

Whatever suits your business, what matters is that retailers are thinking about it. Technology and its disruptive influence is here to stay, and it will be those approaching it creatively who will reap its rewards in years to come. 

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