The future of retail

by Henry Ho ([email protected]) 701 views 

There’s a lot of buzz today surrounding e-commerce and omnichannel retail. The revolution we’re witnessing in digital retail — mobile shopping, store pickup, local delivery — has ignited a fundamental rethinking of what it means to “go shopping.”

Yet this revolution isn’t confined to e-commerce — the so-called “clicks” side of the retail equation. Despite the deceptively old-fashioned term brick-and-mortar, today’s stores are hotbeds for cutting-edge retail innovation.

Look no further than Walmart to appreciate the remarkable advances being made in physical retail. The company is presently experimenting with or implementing an array of technologies to enhance the in-store experience. The list includes endless-aisle shopping, robotics, image analytics, pickup kiosks and scan-and-go technology, all with very practical applications and very real promise for winning the 21st century shopper.

As CEO Doug McMillon said, Walmart is looking to “invent the future of shopping again, as the company leverages technology to empower associates and improve the customer experience.”

And not just how folks shop online, but how shopping is done and orders are filled inside stores, which still represents the lion’s share of retail sales.

The Natural State, particularly the Walmart ecosystem of Northwest Arkansas, has become a hub of world-class retail innovation, with much of this creative energy focused on in-store optimization. I see, for instance, the McMillon Innovation Studio at the University of Arkansas. This one-of-a-kind laboratory offers researchers, faculty and students a resource-rich environment for shaping the future of retail. Within its walls, budding innovators test everything from merchandise displays to omni-fulfillment models, store lighting to supply chain processes.

I also see upstarts like i2i Labs, a company whose mission is to pair retailers with promising new technologies. The company operates a lab in Rogers where retailers can observe live demos of the latest high-tech solutions, many that seek to enhance brick-and-mortar retail.

Like these and many other NWA-based organizations, Field Agent is also committed to rethinking the future of retail. We’ve experimented with image recognition, machine learning and “smart” displays, working closely with retailers to measure the customer’s experience across many retail scenarios and performance-indicators. Whatever the technology, our ultimate goal is to harness it in a way that helps companies understand today’s shoppers, especially in-store and at-home, which for many customers is the start and end of their experience with a particular retailer or brand.

Truly, Arkansas is a cradle of retail innovation. And it’s exciting to watch.

In today’s fiercely competitive environment, the best retailers know they must constantly push the envelope in both physical and digital retail. Increasingly, it must be bricks and clicks. As important, innovations in physical and digital retail must work together to offer customers a seamless and rewarding shopping experience from start to finish, across all customer interactions.

Walmart and other major retailers are taking this imperative seriously. Read between the lines on some of the company’s recent hires: Janey Whiteside, who will fill the newly created role of chief customer officer, new chief marketing officer Barbara Messing, and new head of design Valerie Casey.

Each hire underscores what has become a priority for many retailers: an integrated, first-class experience for shoppers in which the retailer’s customer-facing technologies and services work cohesively to add value at every stage of the shopper’s journey. In-store and online innovation, properly integrated across the customer’s experiences, is the new frontline in the war for shoppers.

And expect Arkansas companies to be right there in the fray.
Editor’s note: Henry Ho is co-founder and chief strategy officer at Field Agent, a retail auditing and insights firm in Fayetteville. Before Field Agent, he worked for 19 years with Procter & Gamble and was a founding member of P&G’s Walmart Global Customer Team. The opinions expressed are those of the author.