Rethinking Retail by Retrofitting Stores with Smart Technology for All

Retail is being transformed. Location data can be used to target effectively and get people through the doors. Augmented reality enhances the experience once they’re inside. Buy online pickup in-store accommodates consumers who know exactly what they want and where they want to get it. And, on the most futuristic end of the spectrum, unmanned store technologies remove the hassle from checkout.

But even as emerging tech vendors and established chains come together to do a major rethink on retail, some industry participants worry that important principles, strategies, and ideas will fall through the cracks. 

Ran Peled, VP of Marketing at Trigo, is promoting his company’s retail automation platform and computer vision technology, but he’s also concerned with what he calls the “gentrification of retail.” 

Existing stores can be retrofitted with Trigo’s tech. This unmanned store solution doesn’t require the construction of a new, sensor-layered space from the ground up. And his company very intentionally chose to retain payment terminals for cash-carrying customers.

Although Trigo is part of the movement to streamline the shopping experience and eliminate checkout lines, they think that eliminating the cash option could be discriminatory in practice. Lower-income customers might not have credit cards, smartphones, or Amazon accounts. Any solution contingent on these things wouldn’t be streamlined for them; it would be a burden, or inaccessible. 

An ethical approach to new retail technology 

Peled told me that new tech products sometimes begin in expensive niches and this can be reflected by the early adopters. 

“Facebook started in Harvard, the iPhone was always for the mass affluent. And I think that once you try and change retail, then you should really be very, very aware and concerned about being discriminatory,” he said. 

This is particularly true for grocery retail, given that food is a basic necessity and the sector is increasingly consolidated. Even as we begin to debate the ethics of new technological layers, the fact remains that there isn’t sufficient progress on matters of geographic distribution. Residents of low-income urban and rural areas often suffer the effects of “food deserts.”

They can’t choose a healthy lifestyle because fresh, nutritious food isn’t even provided at their most easily accessed point of sale. Instead, local quickie marts offer processed, sugary, and fat-laden foods and play into the social determinants of health inequalities. 

When I asked Peled about this, he said that the introduction of cashless stores could exacerbate the issue.

New tech must align with marketing strategies

As the entire retail sector reconfigures itself, there is the risk that flashy technologies could distract from core ethical issues. There’s also the risk that technologies and strategies will be misaligned. 

“Augmented reality has vast potential to bridge the gap between physical and digital retail experiences to heighten the overall experience of the brand. It’s all about whether the use case has been fully imagined – from before the interaction to after the interaction,” said Kate Hogenson, a senior loyalty consultant at Kobie Marketing. 

She continued, “AR can help consumers visualize trying out a product they can’t otherwise see or touch when shopping digitally, or it can augment the in-store experience with elements that mimic the online shopping experience, like the ability to read product features, view related products or see what a product looks like in different colors without having to physically try on every color. The real challenge is in implementing new technologies at a pace that matches where the consumer is on the adoption curve — a spot which is constantly evolving for each individual.” 

Darin Archer, Chief Strategy Officer at Elastic Path, emphasized that retailers need to nail down the basics. “Consumers are looking for technologies that address their most common pain points like long lines, out-of-stock inventory and long waits for customer service,” he said. 

The pace of technological innovation is very rapid but data annotation and the training of AI systems is acting as a drag. Ran Peled mentioned that Trigo has figured out ways around this, which adds to his company’s competitive advantage.

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