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Public expectations about in-store technology are higher than ever and meeting them will be a key factor in any retailer’s success from now on.

Even though consumers may not be able to identify artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), they are familiar with them and expect to see these technologies enhance and expand their experiences in a store.

The growing appetite for technology is an irresistible force that high street retailers must adapt to, whether they like it or not. In a survey conducted by Vista earlier this year, more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of consumers said retailers should make these technologies a priority.  Consumers increasingly know what they are talking about when it comes to applications.  AI-powered chatbots and voice-activation technologies such as Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana or Apple’s Siri are already in daily use and after each festive season, the numbers of users go up.

AI applications are what shoppers are learning to love

In a store, AI voice-activation offers major advantages. Staff can, for example, save customers much time and trouble by immediately obtaining accurate information about products and services via a headset. Consumers can also help themselves through a dedicated kiosk built on AI’s ability to understand customer requests. In the Vista research, consumers were keen to use these devices for discovering products available from the retailer that they were not previously aware of.

AI-based virtual assistants and applications also alleviate the irritation of queuing to pay. Consumers can use these applications on their smartphones and complete transactions quickly from anywhere in the store.

The problem is that while 70 per cent of shoppers are familiar with AI applications, two thirds say they have yet to encounter the technology in a store. This is partly because AI is effectively a computer-based technology that cannot always be seen, touched or felt. This is where UK retail is missing out because all the evidence is that such technologies boost sales.

AR and VR should be part of retail today, not tomorrow

The picture is similar with VR and AR.  VR headsets, which create an incredibly immediate but entirely artificial 3D environment, are increasingly part of the infrastructure of gaming, as anyone who enjoyed a game such as Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, will know.

Yet for the moment, VR in retail tends to be restricted to providing spectacular promotional experiences, such as test-driving a car in dramatic landscapes. AR, on the other hand, which combines reality with the artificial images generated by the software, or voice recommendations for purchases based on the user’s digital profile and social footprint, has more direct impact on helping shoppers make exactly the right purchase.

An Augmented reality (AR) app downloaded by the customer to their smartphone will allow a big TV system or new three-piece-suite to be overlaid on to consumer’s living room to see how it looks before making a purchase. The customer can see how they will look in a new suit, hat or hair colour as the technology superimposes images with great precision and sophistication, enabling customers to move quickly between different styles, sizes or colour tones.

The preferences and choices can be retained to save time and increase customer-recognition and personalisation, whether the consumer is shopping online or in the store.

Even if customers do not want to download apps, they can use smart mirrors for the same effect. These devices, too, can make recommendations to save the customer time. In cosmetics, smaller smart mirrors allow shoppers to try out alternatives and act on recommendations without having to use the products – which is an obvious advantage.

When shoppers employ these AR applications, the majority react very positively. Exactly three-quarters of the shoppers polled who had used AR in a store could see its value and said they felt encouraged to use the technology again. And expectations are growing. More than half (56 per cent) of people who had yet to use the technology were enthusiastic about it and thought it ought to be a priority for bricks-and-mortar retailers.

The new retail world demands a bold response

The danger for the UK high street is that retailers will be too slow in implementing the new technologies that consumers are so positive about. Shoppers familiar with Siri and Amazon Alexa know that technology makes shopping easier. Even though investing in the evolution of retail is a huge expense loaded with potential pitfalls, retailers need to be as excited about AI, VR and AR as their customers and much bolder in deploying applications of these technologies to meet new expectations they cannot afford to ignore.

by James Pepper, Technical Services Director, Vista Retail Support

With 20 years of Retail Technology experience, James understands the damaging effects that out of action technology can have on the retail industry, especially when it comes to customer experience.

In his role as technical services director, he is involved in finding solutions to both the biggest and smallest challenges encountered within the retail environment and is passionate about providing real added value for clients.