In the space of a few years, smartwatches and fitness-tracking wristbands have gone from being cult objects among technology-lovers to mainstream consumer items says James Pepper.

The sheer range can appear bewildering and each has its supporters and detractors. Little by little, wearable technology has moved into the mainstream and become the kind of item bought as a family gift.

The evidence is in the till receipts. One of the country’s biggest chains – Lloyds Pharmacy – found devices such as Fitbit and Vivosmart rapidly being snapped up during the run-up to the last festive season.

This increasing acceptance of wearable devices as everyday objects has important implications for retailers, particularly after the launch of Apple Pay last month.

Apple Watch game changer

The arrival of this system, linked to the high-profile Apple Watch, is likely to shift many consumers away from their chip-and-pin payment cards when making smaller purchases. It may well be the snowfall that starts an avalanche of payments made through wearable technology.

Consider how Apple already has millions of customers in this country, very many of whom will be keen to use a new payment method devised by the company. And very soon the market may be given a further shake-up through the arrival of Samsung’s wristband, using flexible LED technology to produce a physically resilient product that is both smartphone and payment device.

Another factor driving the use of wearables is likely to come from the banks’ increasing use of biometric technology for customer identification – especially blood vessel recognition. Indeed, given Apple’s avid acquisition of biometric businesses, it is expected it will add new payment authentication methods to its devices, besides the fingerprint recognition technology currently employed.

From a retailer’s perspective, allowing customers to pay through wearable technology is always going to be about return on investment.  For some, the £30 payment limit that comes into force in the autumn, will be too low to make it worthwhile.

However, if they are in an urban location with plenty of iPhone users and smartwatch wearers, they should certainly consider it. The speed and convenience of paying with a quick swipe of a device will attract more customers and bring a quick return on investment.

And stepping into the arena is not as daunting as may appear. If a retailer already has PIN entry devices (PEDs) that are able to take contactless payments, then they can take payment from Apple Watch and some of the other smartwatch payment systems that are in the pipeline.

Wearables and loyalty

It is not all about speed, either. Enabling payments via wearables also gives a retailer a loyalty advantage. Customers can be enticed to sign up to loyalty programmes and build up credits that can easily be monitored and redeemed through a wristband, or smartwatch.

Retailers have a great opportunity here to take the initiative and engage with queueing customers so they feel more at ease using their wearables to make payments. If customers also sign up to loyalty programmes, the retailer has access to profile data, which they can use for marketing purposes.

Yet for store operators, wearable technology is about far more than just wristbands and smartwatches. Retailers should be thinking about how it can bring efficiency to their operations. In particular, through the use of augmented reality via Google Glass-type devices. These can, for instance, be used as tools to give remote guidance on how stores should be laid out and products presented.

As staff with headsets move around the store, a manager at head office can check via cameras in the devices to see if instructions are being followed. It allows them to offer real-time advice to store staff via earpieces and visual overlays on the lenses, and obviates the need for training courses or days out of the office.

The same technology can be adapted to bring a big boost to customer service. Staff equipped with a headset can see down aisles and pull up real-time product availability information in front of their eyes. Without having to leave customers, they can let them know precisely where products are, whether they are in the stock room or will shortly be delivered.

Click-and-collect boost

And as more retailers operate click-and-collect, this visual display technology will enable in-store staff to complete an order much more quickly, picking up the location of products through tiny radio tags. Not only will it save staff time, it will also alert them when the stock of individual items is running low and shelves need replenishing.  As a result of such increased efficiency, the click-and-collect experience for the customer should be smoother than ever, free of embarrassing delays or incomplete orders.

Seen in three dimensions, then, wearable technology is likely to become an everyday part of retail, both on the shelves, on the shop floor, in the stock room, back office and even at headquarters.

And as designers make wristbands and smartwatches more attractive and add more functions, these devices are going to overlap into many spheres – health, sport, business technology and jewellery – giving all types of retailers a major opportunity to offer them.  For many store operators, the extent to which they quickly adapt to the world of wearable technology, is going to be one measure of success.

James Pepper is Technical Services Director, Vista Retail Support

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