Retailers today are incorporating innovative technology to solve critical business challenges, while also working to refresh brick-and-mortar locations to wow in-store guests. Driving these changes in the physical environment is the idea of experiential retail, giving shoppers a desire to walk inside for something beyond their intended purchase. It could be to discover a unique assortment of products, or for the convenience of click-and-collect or grab-and-go. But in order to delight those who come inside to shop, companies must understand who the shopper is and how they navigate the store, plus whether or not the right products are on display for them to buy.
The “tip of the iceberg” analogy is commonly used to underscore a concept that goes far beyond what is seen on the surface. It’s with this picture in mind that I want to discuss the depth of the customer experience — what shoppers see, touch and feel in-store, versus the amount of work retailers are doing beneath the surface to leverage customer insights through emerging technology.
The Distinctive Rise In Physical Shopping Experiences
Retailers will spin their wheels with customer-centric initiatives and creative strategies unless they keep a close eye on the direction the industry is headed. Some of these micro-trends we’re seeing include the shrinking center-store and a renewed focus on fresh produce and meal solution sections — we found in our Supermarket 2020 research that 76% of consumers report they’re increasingly buying prepared foods instead of cooking dinner, and many don’t make a dinner decision until an hour or two before the meal. But despite time starvation and a proclivity toward convenience, another recent study showed that over the past three years, there has been an increase in weekly brick-and-mortar shoppers.
In-store shopping is still alive and well, but today it just looks different. Research should always precede changes made in the physical environment, and in order to enable these evolved experiences and focus on the shopper, retailers need smart insights and quick recommendations. These can be easily realized through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology.
VR To Inform And Optimize Store Redesigns
Good business decisions are made when the right data is available, and with the in-store experience being key to future retail success, quick access to this information is imperative. You can know precisely how shoppers will be impacted by store layout and the design of specific customer touch points by using VR as a test-and-learn customer research tool.
How do environmental factors such as lighting or flooring impact the likelihood of a purchase? Where are shoppers looking and how do their eyes track as they scan a display? Do customers navigate the click-and-collect or ready-to-go meal sections with ease?
Questions like these are no longer hypothetical, nor are they as difficult to answer as they were with traditional models. For example, conducting shop-alongs and intercepting customers mid-shop — these methods take too long, and you only get data from segments of certain populations. On the other hand, VR achieves both qualitative and quantitative data analysis. You’re able to digitize a store atmosphere in a virtual environment, and then run users through scenarios to test changes before you actually make them.
Consider this case study of a supermarket’s entire produce section. In a VR model, you can add carefully placed spotlights to make certain areas stand out, or arrange fruits and vegetables on a backlit display to draw customers’ attention to it. A variety of users can be run through different simulations with the same trip mission: “You’re shopping for a party. Here are five things you need to add to your basket.” In analyzing how shoppers reacted to their given environments, you could find that better-lit areas had 30% higher traffic than simulations without the lighting.
This data is your competitive advantage — the benefit of VR for store redesigns is to elevate high-margin or high-volume items, translating to higher volume in traffic and sales when the changes are applied.
AR For Planogram Compliance
The most beautiful store visually will not drive your growth as a retailer if the products aren’t actually available, or if they’re not in their optimal place to be presented to the customer. Through AR, retailers can move away from the traditional model of looking at inventory stock levels to focus on tangible, real-time compliance.
By blending the physical with digital, image recognition technology identifies product on the shelf and compares it to the proper planogram for that space. The technology guides the user, bouncing the shelf reality against the original plans to be sure product is available, the right promotional activity is applied to it, the price is audited and correct and the product placement or position is accurate as well. Because this assistance happens in the moment, misplaced items can be resolved and out of stock merchandise can be communicated back to the system for ordering.
Technologies such as VR and AR work together behind the scenes — or beneath the waves, if we go back to the iceberg comparison — to give you validation as you consider the ways you’ll add value in-store. With the data and analytics to back up your plans, you can give customers variety and satisfaction, helping them make amazing new decisions as they shop in-store.
Vishal Kirpalani serves as VP Product Design & Experience at Symphony RetailAI, the leading global provider of Artificial Intelligence-enabled decision platforms, solutions and customer-centric insights that drive validated growth for retailers and CPG manufacturers. In this role, Kirpalani manages product innovation using bleeding edge technology to drive deep and meaningful product experiences.