The Future of Retail: Will Tech Erase Brick and Mortar?

A robot started prowling the aisles at my local Stop & Shop grocery store a few months ago, a tall, thin drink of water with big, ridiculous googly eyes at the top of its 7-foot-tall frame. Called Marty, the 140-pound robot was first rolled out in 2019 and is continuing to expand his empire, finally reaching the Long Island store I’ve been frequenting. Huzzah?

Marty spots spills and other hazards, and … well, that’s it. Sure, “cleanup on aisle nine” just got more interesting, but his capabilities are limited. Nice try, guys.

Marty cleaning robot by stop & shop
Stop & Shop

Meanwhile, Amazon Go stores are pioneering retail at a whole different level, automatically detecting you as your car enters the parking lot, leaning on A.I. to determine whether you’re merely eyeing the aioli or purchasing those potatoes, and automagically charging your credit card as you stroll through the exits — no swipe required. Retail today is nothing like the shopping malls of yesterday, and the future of retail is headed in a new direction entirely.

Today: What’s in your cart? Amazon knows

The retail world was prepared to be upset by beacons a few years ago. Using tiny Bluetooth sensors from Apple, Kontakt, Estimote, BlueSense and others, retailers were reportedly going to track our progress down the aisle and inundate us with offers, sensing us dawdling over the tie rack. “Buy this right now and I’ll give you 10% off!” That concept clearly hasn’t soared, yet technology has poured into retail at an unprecedented pace.

Consider those Amazon Go stores. How exactly do they know what you’re doing in the store, and determine what’s in your basket and what you need to pay for? Do cameras simply look over your shoulder and record what goes in the cart?

“We started looking at computer vision, but there was no good way to do that. So AWS actually innovated a service called Kinesis Video Feeds,” AWS’global retail lead, Tom Litchford, told me. The service takes streams from a variety of cameras and sends it to the cloud, where advanced A.I. sorts through it to determine what exactly you’re doing within a store. Litchford is a sort of godfather to the retail industry, having held leadership roles at the National Retail Federation and NCR. He also did a stint as industry director of retail and hospitality at Microsoft. He’s got a good finger on where retail is and isn’t going.

Beyond computer vision, Litchford said voice tech and, yes, robotics, are creeping into stores as well (although it’s been a decade and I’ve never seen one of these robo-sushi chefs personally). Cheap Internet of Things sensors that can tell in real time what’s happening in a business are also useful, especially for warehousing and supply chain streamlining: By more accurately tallying what’s stocked, retailers can maintain lower inventory of fresher products. Using this tech, the More Retail chain in India was able to stop shrink-wrapping some items, because it knew they were moving off shelves in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, voice tech isn’t simply limited to that Alexa speaker in your living room. As of September, you can use your voice to pay for gas at select ExxonMobil stations. “You say ‘I’m at pump 8’ and it’s ready to go. It’s all about how we are removing that friction from the shopping experience,” Litchford said.

Tomorrow: AR galore … the nail in the coffin for brick and mortar?

“COVID didn’t cause any problems for retailers, it just exposed a bunch they had,” Litchford says. “The biggest one was the massive shift to online.” Because let’s be honest: Most retail websites haven’t really evolved beyond a grid of stuff someone’s trying to sell you, have they? The massive surge in online shopping has seen changes that hint at the dynamic, virtual world coming to websites, however.

Lancôme just unveiled its virtual environment, pop-up “experiences” built in collaboration with ByondXR. Thanks to the tech company’s platform, you can explore the beauty company’s products and be lectured in German by an avatar. It’s better than it sounds, I promise, and Lancôme sounds really bearish on the tech.

“These virtual pop-ups have shown great value in terms of audience engagement and sales,” said Malik Abu-Ghazaleh, global head of Digital Marketing, Ecommerce and CRM at Lancôme. “Having seen the potential, I’m positive we will do many more of these.”

It isn’t alone: Ralph Lauren has leaned far into mixed-reality experiences, with virtual versions of its actual boutiques in Beverly Hills and New York’s Madison Avenue, and Tommy Hilfiger built a holiday pop-up shop to celebrate the seasons.

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