Dazzling Retail Ingenuity That Should Put You In A Good Mood

You may not be vain but I’m guessing any technology that shaves a few years off your age is likely to get your vote. But how about video technology that measures your mood when you are in a store?

I was temporarily rejuvenated by one of the more effective of these shopper-tracking solutions at this month’s annual Retail Business Technology Expo (RBTE) at Olympia. That certainly made me happy.

These automated, video-based technologies have until now sought to track the age and gender of shoppers as they move around a store, but have been completely inaccurate.

Now, however, they are capable of picking up not only a shopper’s age, but how long they dwell in the various areas of a store, what they look at and what they fail to notice. But they can also, so it is claimed, pick up facial expression and judge mood. This may seem a little creepy, but retailers are not interested in individuals – they want to find out how different demographics react to their store layouts and promotions.

Despite these advances, the fact that it flattered my age may indicate this technology still in need of refinement.

Less so with some of the dazzling display technology on show, where there was a clear trend towards interactivity. I was especially captivated by a holographic system that generated revolving 3D images of a car above a glass plate. Using my hands I was able to “scroll” through the image to examine particular details and pick up more details of the specification. This is technology that clever minds are likely to design into store layouts.

The same may be true of the two-dimensional projections a Czech-based company produced on a wall. When I was present it was a huge image of a bike, the colour, design and configuration of which could be altered by customers using hand gestures as they explored the options. Sensors effectively turned the image into a giant tablet device you could use to explore products. It’s an application that could reduce the amount of stock retailers have to hold on individual premises.

Less spectacular, but potentially far more significant developments are afoot in RFID technology (radio frequency identification) which uses tiny tags attached to each piece of stock.

We’ve often heard about how RFID can help to provide an omni-channel experience for the customer, but questions have remained about how it will help cut costs, increase efficiency, and ultimately boost profits for the retailer.

At RBTE, one company seemed to have come up with a viable application, eradicating, for example, the need for store personnel to trawl each store, scanning each individual item for a stock-take. Instead, retailers can use one centrally-located RFID reader in each store which can pick up the signals of each tag to obtain a global view of their entire inventory instantaneously.

There are all kinds of benefits from this system for both consumers and retailers if it works in everyday conditions. Almost every stock item becomes available for sale, wherever or however you are buying it, because the retailer knows where your size, colour or specification can be found. That means less reasons to tell you something is not in stock. For the retailer it should mean less discounting as items that aren’t shifting well in one store can be transferred to a different branch where the data shows they have proved to be popular sellers. Equally, they may just go out of the door for an online sale.

There are potentially big gains in security and supply chain surveillance too. If manufacturers can enable RFID in items from the point at which they leave the production line, loss and theft can be prevented from factory to point-of-sale.

RBTE also provided me with the opportunity to catch up with my namesake, Pepper, the humanoid robot developed through a partnership between IBM’s Watson supercomputer and SBRH. Since I last encountered this automated charmer in January, SBRH have put Pepper to work in Carrefour stores in France, showcasing its abilities in a live retail environment.

Billed by its manufacturer as ‘kindly, endearing and surprising’, Pepper can interact with humans and recognise the principle emotions. Perhaps in the future, Pepper will be deployed at customer-service, to deal with angry shoppers. However it is currently using its French to engage with customers and point out special offers.

SBRH says that retailers enlisting Pepper’s help can judge the robot’s worth by measuring the uptake of the offers it recommends – handy for the line manager tasked with doing Pepper’s quarterly appraisal.

It was enlightening to learn that Pepper’s placement has increased footfall in Carrefour stores, with droves of parents taking along curious children. It’s rare to hear of children so eager to be taken along on the weekly food shop and retailers should take note. These are their future customers after all.

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