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Will "disruptive retail" technologies temper the decline of the high street?

Our technology-obsessed culture has spent decades teaching us to prioritise efficiency and speed—it’s one of the reasons e-commerce has become such a success. However, this flies in the face of the very purpose of brick and mortar stores, with once-giant brands either closing down altogether, or slowing down their growth, as H&M have recently announced. Conversely, online retailers are opening up their own high street outlets, with Amazon’s checkout-free Go stores leading the charge as ever.

E-commerce innovations like one-click shopping and digital assistants continue to encourage customers to stay at home to make their purchases. However, the high street is fighting back with disruptive retail tactics of its own, making brick and mortar stores not only a better experience for consumers, but a more memorable one as well.

What is disruptive retail?

Disruptive retail refers to the new technologies that seek to change the entire shopping journey of a consumer from first exposure to completion. Mostly, these technologies increase the efficiency of the shopping experience: intelligent devices—from shipping containers to shopping carts—are already a part of our daily lives and expected to continue to grow at an accelerated pace.

Both on- and off-line, retailers are embracing disruptive retail technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data and robotics, to create huge future opportunities for retailers and brands in-store too. Disruptive retail technology is upending the industry, transforming retailers’ understanding of the customer shopping experience.

A further intention of disruptive retail technologies is to enable retailers to create a meaningful connection between their product and consumers. Therefore, it’s not always about the battle between brick and mortar stores and online shopping experiences; for retail strategists, it’s about exploiting the relationship between the two.

Oliver Guy, the retail industry director at Software AG has commented that “the worlds of e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail are now seamlessly merging with retailers evolving towards an omnichannel approach to their businesses.” That is to say, the lines between online and high street shopping are blurring, with each taking elements of the other’s business practices to create decidedly new shopping experiences for consumers.

What disruptive retail technologies are there?

Here are the in-store and online technology-based trends that are reshaping retail and bringing more value to the shopping experience.

Social shopping

Social commerce is also on the rise, powered by mobile and several other factors: Shoppers are becoming more comfortable clicking the “buy” button on social media, and they’re drawn to the narrative, shared social experiences and peer-to-peer recommendations. Retail design companies, who were once only concerned with making their stores look appealing to customers and passers-by, are now even making a point of designing visual merchandising campaigns which work as “ready-made social media posts”.

In 2016, River Island joined forces with Snapchat to help boost their in-store presence with a location-based ‘Snap & Share’ campaign. This campaign gave consumers access to bespoke branded filters within the clothing chain’s 280 stores located around the UK & Ireland, which are designed to make the shopping experience shareable.

New store concepts

A lot of the focus of retail strategies at the moment concerns developing methods to get more customers in store. Transforming the store into a production centre, Adidas recently unveiled an in store technology that determines a customer’s perfect fit and turns their personal design into a seamless custom knit jumper in just a couple of hours of production time.

This can include immersive in-store experiences too. In 2015 the Topshop flagship store on Oxford Street hosted the world’s first Twitter-powered crane. As part of a ‘Topshop Playland’ campaign, the event also included a Twitter-powered vending machine, Ms Pac-Man and coin pusher machines.

Virtual, augmented and mixed realities

A recent Independent article makes the bold claim that virtual reality will replace high street shopping in just a few decades. Quoting a report from expert retailers at The Future of Shopping, VR is expected to form a huge part of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”.

That revolution is already underway. It’s first incarnation, IKEA’s catalogue app, allowed shoppers to place virtual furniture in their own homes. But VR is on the high street too: the first virtual reality showrooms are being developed. The technology, which will begin rolling out to Made.com stores this year, enables customers to virtually decorate a room or home with the help of a headset and a click of a button.

Smart shelves

Amazon is leading the way once again with new Amazon Go grocery stores, offering all the convenience of a grocery store with none of the checkouts. This is achieved by using RFID tags, a technological advancement which has been hailed by retail tech experts OCS Retail Support as “revolutionising retail.” These tags emit data about what kind of item a product is and, crucially, where it is in the store. Using RFID technology, Amazon Go stores track items from shelf to basket, then charge to customers’ accounts using an integrated smartphone eCommerce app.

The same technology is also being used to support stock management on the other side of the counter. RFID tagging is used in supply chains and stock taking to alert retailers to take action accordingly when stocks run low on shelves. This is crucial for the survival of any high street shop, given that research has proven out of stock goods cause up to 43% of shoppers to go to rival stores.

In a new retail world order where online retail has become ultra-competitive and a small number of companies are dominating a large share of the marketplace, retailers need to do something different in order to grab the attention of consumers. These disruptive technologies are not only enabling retailers to stand out from the crowd, but form much of the attraction themselves.

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