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You are walking through a swanky shopping mall and you notice an interactive advertising wall with QR codes displaying several latest woollen jacket designs. It is beginning to get colder and you realise that you need a warm jacket. As you walk into your favourite apparel retail store, the thermal crowd management non-intrusive sensor installed at its entrance door detects your body heat, records your entry and adds you as a customer into the system.

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You go to the shelf where the jackets are displayed and tell the store executive that you would like to try all the six designs. He notes down the product codes of the jackets and leads you to a high-tech mirror. The mirror’s parametric technology simulates your body type based on your weight, height and measurements and one by one shows how you would look in each jacket. After this, it simultaneously shows you all your pictures in each of the six jackets so that you can compare and finally decide which one to buy.

After paying for the jacket, you briefly stop at a music and movies store. The latest Bond film is available but you have not read its reviews yet. You decide to judge it for yourself. So you hold your mobile phone over the DVD’s bar code and the Bond flick’s trailer starts playing on your phone’s screen.

This is not a scene out of some sci-fi movie, but something you can look forward to experiencing in the near future.

New technologies such as augmented reality (AR), Near Field Communication (NFC), smart shopping devices and SixthSense technology are facilitating emergence of novel and highly interactive customer touchpoints. These technologies are developing at an astonishing pace, throwing complex challenges for retailers. While some touchpoints have been adopted, many are still in the pilot stage.

Smart shopping technology and devices
Smart carts. IBM, NCR, Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard are developing smart shopping devices that are likely to be widely used in the near future. Work is underway on a supermarket smart cart that has a screen embedded in its handles. A shopper needs to swipe a smart card through a slot in the cart to trigger the device ‘on.’

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The screen communicates with the customer, notifying him of various in-store offers and promotions. The cart keeps track of all the products kept in it, enabling quicker billing as the cart can communicate with the cash register. The customer’s purchase history is also maintained, which enables the cart to anticipate which direction the customer is likely to move in through the retail shop floor. Customised suggestions then begin to pop up on the screen, to help the shopper.

Thermal imaging. Thermal imaging cameras detect radiation in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum (roughly 9000-14,000 nanometres or 9-14 µm) and generate images of that radiation, known as thermograms. All objects emit infrared radiation, which is above absolute zero, and the amount of radiation emitted by an object increases with temperature. Since the temperature of human beings is higher than most surrounding objects’, thermography allows detection and counting of humans. Array sensors detect heat sources in thermal imaging systems.

These systems usually use embedded technology and are placed at a height for precise results. As they detect the heat emitted from people, they are able to count well even in different intensities of lighting, and need not employ complex background removal algorithms unlike computer vision systems. This results in a more precise people count. However, the system may fail in cold weather when customers are wearing thick woollens.

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People counters help collect information such as customer footfalls and the path taken by the customers in the store, helping to generate customer insights such as their reactions to in-store promotions and price changes, and linkages between footfalls and sales. This information ultimately helps in improving the store layout and quality of service.

SixthSense technology. Many of you would have seen that amazing video on TED, featuring Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense technology. It is in development stage at MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group and is “a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information.” This technology will make the product shelves in retail malls come alive by providing interaction with product packages.

Generally, when shopping for a high-value product such as a laptop or a car, we are likely to refer to price and feature comparison websites. However, small ticket items such as toys and music CDs are more of impulse purchases and we usually do not have time to read product reviews before making the purchase.

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SixthSense technology enables the customer to gain access to a whole lot of product-related information, such as reviews and comparisons by merely scanning the bar code of the product. The entire information can be projected on any surface. This technology could also give stores the liberty to stock only one sample of each product and offer delivery the next day after the customer has selected the product and purchased it by scanning the barcode using his mobile.

Augmented reality. Augmented reality technology is becoming increasingly popular. It adds a visual layer of information on top of surfaces such as a mirror and the content interacts with layers of information provided by the real world. For example, by holding up a specially coded box or label to a webcam-equipped computer, the user can see an augmented, 3D image of the product, or a graphic display of other additional information.

Intel has developed a high-technology mirror that lets shoppers see how the chosen clothes would look on them. It is a digital trial room where the customer just needs to stand in front of an LCD monitor and parametric technology simulates his body type displaying how chosen garments would fit on him—based on weight, height and measurements.

Malls of the future could use digital signage that delivers targeted advertising and also captures key customer demographic information via video for analysis later, thus creating almost real-time customer feedback.

Major consumer product companies are also testing the business value of mobile mash-ups. Bionic Eye is an iPhone app wherein the user can point the camera at a mall to get a screen display of all the outlets inside the building. Virtual signposts with directions to nearby points of interest are also included. Interestingly, all this works offline.

Data mining and predictive analytics
‘Big Data’—a term much in vogue today—refers to deployment of huge amount of information to make businesses more efficient and responsive to clients and customers. Data are collected and mined in a number of sectors, including retail, telecom and finance. However, retail sector has the highest level of interaction with a huge volume of customers from different walks of life and hence retailers are very interested in closely understanding their customers.

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You login to your favourite e-commerce site to buy a handset. You shortlist one and put it in your virtual shopping cart. However, as you read customer reviews further, you end up changing your mind. You then discover that every online store that you visit features an ad for that very handset. This happens as online retailers can give you a virtual identification number and track your journey from site to site, displaying purchase-targeted ads for products of your interest—this is also known as ‘ghost marketing.’

A firm has developed a computer program that enables a store’s security cameras to give the management different types of information about how consumers interacted inside the shopping area. It tells precisely the number of customers present inside the store at a time, areas of the store explored by them and specific products on which shoppers spent appreciable time. The software can integrate this information with other factors such as staffing levels, weather, product variety and placement to conclude what makes sales happen.

In the future, computer programs, with information from video cameras, will determine customers’ gender and interpret their facial expressions and other gestures to help retailers understand why someone did or did not buy a given product.

Endpoint
Technology as well as buying behaviour is evolving at breakneck speed and retailers who wait for others to drive touchpoint adoption will find themselves to be losers. Since in the post-recession era, there are no rapid-growth new markets, the growth itself will come at the expense of competition. Hence it is important that retail companies keep pace with technology developments and use them to the fullest to become more efficient and effective.


The author has been consulting in the telecom sector and is currently associate professor at School of Management Sciences, Apeejay Stya University

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