How technology is changing retail

08.11.12

The retail environment is evolving around us: we look at some ways technology is influencing how we may (or may not) be shopping in the future.

Technology is changing the way we shop and how consumers engage with products and packaging. From (sometimes) time-saving self-service checkouts to your ‘favourites’ being saved automatically into your online basket, retailers are seeing the value in streamlining their processes via technology. And with 2012 being the tipping point year where 50% of the UK population is using smartphones, retailers are looking at different ways to offer convenience shopping via technology.

As if it isn’t a bounty enough to be able to get the ‘big shop’ on your phone, global retailers are finding new ways for consumers to avoid the hassle of traditional shopping, as we know it.

This week Sainsbury’s has been testing their new in-store shopping concept ‘Mobile Scan & Go’, whereby customers scan their chosen items whilst walking around the store, thus removing the need to unload all their groceries from the trolley or basket before paying.  Although this smartphone-shopping concept is in its early stages, if successful it could mean for a more efficient, lower-stress customer experience.

Meanwhile, over in China, Yihaodian an online groceries supermarket has announced the opening of 1,000 virtual supermarkets, viewed via Augmented Reality on smartphones in blank city spaces.  Products will be displayed in a format not too dissimilar to a ‘bricks & mortar’ store and once purchased will be delivered to customer’s homes.

Both these advances in customer efficiency and experiences rely on further smartphone penetration and however futuristic these advances are, there will always be tech-related pitfalls to consider.

What is interesting about both of these cases is their polar opposite directions when it comes to consumer relationship with products and their packaging.

Sainsbury’s in the UK will be encouraging further engagement with their products and packaging, as items will need to be picked up, QR barcode located and then scanned. These steps will encourage better affinity with packaging design for favoured products, but in some cases could lead to consumers picking up an alternative product instead – a result of more calculated decision-making.  Ultimately, if this shopping approach were to be more widespread packaging design will be more important than ever.

Yihaodian customers in China however will be limited to making purchasing decisions on the basis of 2D flattened images on smartphone screens. Packaging components such as labelling, graphics, imagery and an opportunity to have a good old feel of the product will be hard to achieve really changing the way consumers thinking about what they’re buying. Although we love that technology is being used as a tool to enhance the shopping experience we are feeling a little skeptical about the concept on the whole.

It seems that Yihaodian are missing the hook that HomePlus in South Korea picked up on: consumer need. Homeplus’ QR stores have seen great success, being extended throughout South Korea and their app being downloaded by over a million people. However technologically advanced the idea of Augmented Reality stores are, many uses for AR to date have been novelty add-ons to products, being innovation for innovation’s sake rather than reflecting need.

So as emerging markets are finding ways to leapfrog innovation in the West, this use of AR shopping may be a step too far for consumers – with technology taking precedence over consumer need and ultimately, their behaviour. The key for new technologies being optimised in the ‘retail environment’ ultimately mirrors that of traditional design processes: to satisfy user-centred need and thorough functionality whilst delivering on good experience.