"The Store of the Future," as retail electronics vendors have depicted it over the past few years, features eight-foot touchscreen walls that double as mirrors, interacting with the customer as she tries on virtual clothes without sacrificing her own modesty, scanning the ID tags and profiles of items she's already selected, and giving store clerks tools to dazzle the customer with demos and make on-the-spot deals without having to rush to the back office. These are the wonders made possible by embedded technology... ah, can't you hear the voice-over announcer now!
The thing is, customers are already entering the stores right now with touchscreens, scanners, IM clients, Twitter clients, and live video displays - they're just in the customer's pocket or purse. So at the National Retail Federation's big show earlier this week in New York City, there were dueling visions of "The Store of the Future." The challenger looks more like a kind of smart Wi-Fi that communicates directly with the devices the customer already has, using hardware that could cost retailers a lot less.
Embedded: Big, bright, and in your face
Representing the "champion's" corner for embedded technology is Intel, whose message is that screens should be big. To illustrate its point, it gathered together an impressive list of consumer goods partners, including Kraft Foods, HSN (above), and Adidas (below), in live demonstrations of interactive kiosk technology featuring feedback cameras and live analytics. Imagine super-chef Wolfgang Puck welcoming incoming shoppers everywhere (literally) with, "How do you do, ma'am?" If you're a man, you wouldn't appreciate it much. That's what the cameras and analytics are for; to determine what gender and approximate age you must be.
It is Intel's software division that provides the masterstroke here, with what it unveiled this week as its Audience Impression Metric (AIM) suite. As with a Microsoft demo of the same technology RWW featured last Monday, Intel is literally aiming to reinvent the billboard, replacing ordinary signage with huge devices that may be able to ascertain your identity, guess your interests, and maybe say hi to you by name.
"Deployers don't want an ad or message merely to be seen. They want it to be relevant," reads a new Intel white paper on AIM (PDF available here). "Otherwise, if consumers pass by unfazed by what shows on a screen, they're wasting time and money. Video analytics distinguishes how much attention people put toward digital signage. As someone approaches a monitor, cameras focus in, capturing a digitized impression of the signage viewer. Actual images are not used, thus keeping data anonymous. Through those impressions, the technology is able to discern a person's gender, race, approximate age and, based on the contours of the person's face and positioning, just how long he actually looks at the screen."
Now, although the "H" in "HSN" originally stood for "home" - as in "home shopping" - it's actually been extending its brand beyond the scope of just television. The publicity firm that helped HSN connect with Intel made it clear it also handles marketing for Starwood, the parent company of Sheraton and Westin hotels. Conceivably, digital signage such as this could transform an arm's-length span of unused wall space into valuable real estate.
Something else you might possibly find in a hotel lobby might look like a rejected design for a refit TARDIS. It's called the Diji-Touch (above), and it's actually an Intel prototype concept for a kind of interactive vending machine that incorporates the same technology as the video wall. With two big screens at right angles to one another, it has better opportunity to capture customers' attention walking down a hallway.
If you can believe this, Diji-Touch devices could be managed through a cloud-based content management system. While the cloud can't exactly deliver Cadbury eggs or Jell-O, it could serve as a deployment point for customized advertising campaigns, and also (you knew this was coming) display ads from outside sources. So just the same way a company may buy display ads on a Web site today, it may buy ads on a vending machine tomorrow.
Mobile: Small, portable, and in your pockets
One company already very familiar to retailers is VeriFone, which makes point-of-sale (POS) systems and credit card readers. Normally, VeriFone fights in the embedded systems camp, but at the NRF show earlier this week, it came forth with a surprise: a portable catalog and payment system that could also be beamed via Wi-Fi to an iPad (shown above).
The idea is to extend VeriFone technology to smaller retailers whose proprietors may already have iPads. Imagine one of those middle-of-the-mall kiosks that may only have a temporary contract. With VeriFone's software and an iPad stationed near the register, the clerk could show customers a wide variety of sale items without having to keep them in inventory first.
One of the more intriguing concepts for leveraging existing mobile devices came from Aruba Networks. It produces in-store Wi-Fi systems that lets clerks and sales associates roam the entire showroom floor, handling demonstrations, inventory checks, and final POS directly from their iPod Touch or iPad. On the right, you see one of the attachments Aruba was demonstrating, called a Linea-Pro 4. It's a snap-on attachment to an iPhone or iPod Touch that includes a barcode reader and a magnetic stripe reader.
It's cool device attachments like this one that should get Aruba's in-store Wi-Fi installed on major retailers' networks. But once it's there, the opportunity arises for another kind of customer contact. Imagine apps, if you will, that sense when a customer's own smartphone has entered the in-store Wi-Fi's range. Conceivably, those apps could produce lists of store specials, check prices on non-priced goods, generate instant discounts or coupons, or even map the locations of store clerks wearing the Linea-Pro devices.
Aruba is calling the back-end architecture for bringing shoppers online MOVE. During the show, Aruba made it clear that MOVE is definitely being crafted to extend the digital retailing experience to the customers themselves.
So over the next three years, more retailers will definitely be reaching out to you with digital, interactive, multitouch devices, and capturing information about you as they do. The only question now is, will they be using their own devices or yours?