Don't miss retail's digital destination

by Bill Bishop

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retail destinationWhen we talk about mobile and retail, we often move fast to features, tactics, and strategies, but unless we back up to see the enormity of the change for shoppers, we might fail to get to retail’s true digital destination. For shoppers, it's become personal and intimate. Let me explain what this means.

I was reminded of my first experience with my smartphones' navigation when I read The Atlantic’s recent interview with Google Maps leader Michael Jones. It changed everything. It was helpful. It was comforting. It was reassuring. It was dynamic.  As a result, I will never go back to a paper map again – and you probably won’t either.

Drafting a bit on the thinking of Google Map’s leader provides much fodder.  

When maps became personal, says Michael Jones in the interview, they changed profoundly. Now a map is “different for everyone who uses it.” Zoom in, shift focus, ask it to find restaurants or movie theaters. In effect, users build their own map. We talk a lot about personalization in retailing – but this is the context in which we should think about it: A user experience that’s so rich, so helpful, so useful, that it changes everything.

The dialog between people and maps is going to become even more personalized and more intimate in the future. The headline here is that big changes are happening in the way that man and machine communicate, and this is going to create new opportunities for engagement.

At our last Food Foresight meeting, a group of us were talking about how much information augmented reality could deliver about food products. One of our colleagues needs to follow a low-cholesterol diet. He wanted to be able to hold up his phone as he walked down the grocery aisle and have an augmented reality app show him all foods that qualified for his diet. Jones talks about an app that can use your location to point out “interesting things” to you. Can you see something similar working for a shopper in a store? It would be very powerful.

These examples illustrate both how man-machine communications are changing, and how machines are making us smarter.  Jones sees the creation of digital maps as having an impact similar to the advent of the encyclopedia or the dictionary; i.e. it represents the creation of a universal reference that anyone can use for their own purposes.  Interestingly, Jones asserts that this functionality has already made people smarter by 20 IQ points.

To get to retail’s digital destination, we need to keep in mind that from the shopper’s perspective, mobile isn’t just a tactic or strategy, and an app isn’t just an app. It’s bigger than that. Technology has become personal and intimate. It alters the experience, adds more detail, more appreciation, more practical help. And when it changes everything, like my smartphone navigation did for me, there’s no going back.

What else does retail need to do to be sure we catch this wave?

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BlackBeltAndy Robinson said:
Bill, again you create a thought-provoking piece to help key ideation to allow retail to "Catch the Wave" of digital execution. Your calling out of the consumers' smartphones as intimate devices in which people keep personal information along with info about their friends, family and colleagues, their photos, music, and web browsing/social interactions. When Google Maps changed the dynamic by starting from the user's perspective, the pieces fell into place for maps on smartphones. Likewise, when retailers change from pushing out mass messages and start to deliver them from the shopper's perspective, the transformation to digital will accelerate. The end result of delivering your message from the shoppers’ personal point of view is increased loyalty and share of spend from your existing customers while enabling them to attract new customers through their social influence.

To me the Google Maps experience teaches us that mobile smartphone solutions work best when starting with the user's perspective. In retail there are more variables that may apply; CRM, loyalty, gamification (make it fun & enjoyable) along with unique ingredients that are determined by retailer-specific variables. The retailer specific variables include the retailers’ market goals and shopper marketing strategy, the historical marketing/advertising activities, and these are enhanced when the current shopper perception of the retailers is included. While this may seem difficult I believe the way to accomplish it is evident when you start with what you have done historically, and choose a goal for where you hope to be. As in all transformation caused by environmental shifts, the first step is to allow for the change, then apply the digital technology and media to a goal that is focused on enhancing the shopper's experience with your retail destinations.
Mohamed Amer said:
Excellent and provocative Bill! I’d like to build on that: consumers are creating space-time shifts. I borrow from physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity and implications that massive objects like neutron stars and black holes distort and warp space and time in their surroundings. Here we have new technologies (which will continue to surprise) changing our relationships with each other socially and with commercial enterprises such as retailers. The way we socialize, educate, date, research, discover, buy/sell, and work has dramatically changed from just a decade ago. Internet, broadband, and mobile technologies facilitate our ability to have ‘moving’ multi-sensory experience of being in several locations simultaneously (as traditional telephones did in previous generations along a fixed point and a singular aural sense).

Our world is becoming more personal and intimate as each of us defines the parameters of our own experiences; we are using technologies to create our own space-time shifts. Successful retail models of the not-too-distant future have to embrace and act on these massive social and behavioral changes.
Nick Arlt said:
Bill, this is a very interesting topic and one that will be around for many, many years to come. As you touched on, making technology more personal is key. The goal needs to be making the technology invisible, non-existent in the user's mind.

Currently, people have to be conscious about pulling out their smart phone, opening an app, creating a list, playing a game, etc. When placing a call or using Siri, it is becoming a natural part of people's lives. 20 years ago if you told someone they could place a call from anywhere, even while driving, they'd be amazed. Today, it's taken for granted and people don't think about it.

When a technological experience goes from a conscious effort to an unconscious activity, that's when true success will be achieved. The point at which the consumer can focus on the task and not think about technology is what everyone should be trying to achieve.
Brian Woolf said:
Your eye-opening piece reminds me of what Daniel Burrus [Technotrends (1993)] told us: When the tools change, the rules change.
Our challenge as retailers, with Google Maps and all these other new technological developments, is to discern what rules are being changed and how might we take advantage of them?
BlackBeltAndrew Stein said:
Bill, you are on to something disruptive. And good. The thinking does need to change. I recall decades ago reshaping architect and engineering design software, reading Nicholas Negroponte's (MIT) work on human-computer interaction. The revelation for me at the time "it's not the software, it's the outcome."

The bigger revelation is that software must get out of the way. Call them apps, smartphone tools, whatever - to me and the future consumer, it doesn't, shouldn't and won't matter.

The design thinking process must be applied, and as such, we should expect to see a an inverted shift from "consumers engaging with software" to get something done to "software engaging with the consumer" empowering outcomes with far less effort.

We used to call this: "the software must get out of the way of getting something done." True visionaries in Retail will follow this design thinking concept... we will be surprised by the disruptive innovation in this space, yet to come.

Changing Nicholas Negroponte's phrase, the future now reads "computer-human interaction." and we now know that it will be quite predictive and prescriptive in nature.

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