When it comes to combining technologies, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. We are seeing network and computing technologies developing in tandem, providing new levels of functionality to those companies willing to invest in them. Ideally, they will invest in multiple technologies which can complement each other and increase overall return on investment.
Endpoint technology (particularly in the area of phones and personal digital assistants), short-range communications, and wide-area IP networking technology are three areas in which we are seeing particular innovation. Companies that combine any of these technologies in different ways stand to differentiate themselves from the competition. In a post-recession market focused once again on growth and customer acquisition, this is particularly important in some key verticals. Today, we will explore the potential of endpoint and network technology in the retail environment.
In retail, the attraction of endpoint devices lies not only in their ability to relay information quickly and easily to a central server, but also in their ability to seduce the customer. Apple in particular has demonstrated a unique capability to produce devices that end-users yearn to play with. With its large format touch screen, the iPad (or other devices) doubles both as a useful information display device, and as consumer eye candy. In a retail environment, this is a powerful combination.
Boutiques, for example, can use iPads to demonstrate different products. Custom applications could be used to demonstrate new clothing - perhaps even superimposing the clothing on the customer in future versions of tablet computers that include camera modules. In a restaurant, customers could flip through meal options electronically and point at the most appetising option.
For the sale of large, high-value products with plenty of options, such as vehicles, the iPad represents an excellent aid for a salesperson trying to ingratiate themselves with a customer and present them with information about the available options. What better way to sell heated leather seats in a luxury car than with a video, and data about winter temperatures in that dealership's location?
How can retailers use networks in conjunction with endpoint technology to enhance this experience still further? Linking data immediately to customer relationship management systems (perhaps using a customer name or loyalty card) could allow a retailer to instantly access their purchase and service history and make sales decisions using information integrated into the sales application. This becomes particularly important when trying to sell higher-value items, where the interaction between the customer and the salesperson is more personalized and proactive.
Other experts have suggested links to social networks to further refine the sales cycle. Sites such as thisnext.com and kaboodle.com are applying social networking to the act of shopping, so that customers can recommend and discuss products together. With a customer's permission (perhaps by having them voluntarily link their social networking account on its ecommerce site) a retailer could collect information about their product likes and dislikes. The sales consultant could use that to enhance that customer's in-store experience in conjunction with the endpoint device.
Once the customer had designed their purchase, they could approve their orders with a touch of the finger, and send it to a central server for processing. This turns the device into a shopping cart as well as a POS. In a restaurant environment, this could dramatically speed up the ordering process (while providing users with novelty in a competitive market).
If you add an interactive virtual personal branded assistant (with interactive voice capabilities) to the application, it can help and guide the customer from the demonstration graphics all the way to the virtual cart or purchase interface.
An endpoint device or iPad can now be a strategic tool, acting as a sales and marketing kiosk within the retail store, with multiple kiosks spread out on the retail floor. The devices will not only enhance the user experience but also help the retail company in using their employees more efficiently. This could enable a retailer to capitalise on the skills of its staff, turning them into consultants dedicated to enhancing customer experiences, rather than being mere shop floor workers. Use patterns for tablet devices, linked to high-speed networks, could influence the way that a retailer lays out its physical store. I truly believe that endpoint devices such as the iPad will shape and shift the business processes of the future in the retail store environment.
All of this is possible, but it requires a new level of integration on the part of the retailer or third party. Working with world-class service and integration companies, they can ensure that the back-end computing systems for their bricks-and-mortar operations integrate properly with their e-commerce systems, enabling data to be exchanged between the two. For many bricks-and-mortar players, this is the biggest challenge - and yet, it is the greatest opportunity for retailers wanting to give their customers that 'joined up' experience, fronted by a powerful, interactive sales solution that is hard for them to resist.