Could Wearables, AR/VR Fix Retail's Brick-and-Mortar Problem?

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 11, 2017

I read an op-ed recently, the headline of which was “To save retail, let it die.” The author made a case for letting go of our notions of what a traditional retail store should offer and instead embracing emerging technologies as a means to transform brick-and-mortar retail into something new.

Rather than a place with a large inventory of products for customers to browse, try on and buy; the author predicted that physical retail spaces will become a destination for shoppers to experience something they can’t get online, something that can’t be delivered to their homes. Products won’t disappear from stores but sales won’t be their main purpose—they will be dynamic spaces for brands to engage and build relationships with consumers; where consumers will be able to have exciting product experiences (in AR and VR perhaps,) learn and be entertained.

If the retail industry were to save itself this way, actual sales might never occur onsite but the inspiration or impetus behind them would; and today’s retail spaces and operations will need to be redesigned, re-staffed and re-managed to make it all possible. Sleek, minimalist stores that focus on customer experience as opposed to stocking and moving inventory (picture the Apple Store with a single table of cutting-edge technology demos) might seem like something out of The Jetsons, but automotive companies are already going there. Cadillac, Volvo, Hyundai, Audi and Ford are all experimenting with Augmented and Virtual Reality to make the dealership experience more exciting, efficient (downsize in space,) and still necessary to the final act of purchasing. You may very well go to a dealership one day that has just one vehicle on the floor, and still be able to explore and test drive hundreds of different car options through an AR/VR headset.

The reality is that consumers today are more empowered than ever before thanks to web-enabled, in-home research and buying capabilities; and the mall, shop and showroom experiences are no longer essential to making purchase decisions. Gap just announced it is closing 200 of its stores; and Sears – struggling to compete with Amazon and a newly e-commerce-focused Walmart – is closing about the same number of Kmart stores. But all those millions of square feet of retail space don’t have to “go to waste.” It’s time for retailers to step up their innovation efforts, part with tradition, overhaul their business models, reconnect with shoppers, and create the brick-and-mortar store of the future. Read how some retailers are beginning to do so using wearable technologies:


In 2015, Japanese retailer Uniqlo trialed wearable neuroscience technology at several of its stores in Australia. The idea behind the experiment: In the future, store customer service will include the ability to match clothing to the shopper’s mood.

The wearable device Uniqlo customers had the chance to experience was UMood. After putting on the brainwave-reading headset, the shopper was shown a series of video clips. The technology read his/her brain activity to determine a mood, and ultimately recommended the perfect t-shirt based upon those responses. The algorithm used accounted for the wearer’s interest, like, concentration, stress and drowsiness in order to narrow down from among over 600 t-shirt styles.

Uniqlo said this experiment was not about consumer research so much as engaging customers in the physical store, and providing a new and hopefully helpful shopping experience.


Arctic Cat

In 2016, the snowmobile and ATV manufacturer developed the immersive Arctic Cat 360 experience. At event displays and dealerships, consumers could put on a Samsung Gear VR headset and virtually ride new snowmobile models in a dream snowmobiling destination complete with steep, adrenaline-pumping drops and climbs.

The company launched the virtual reality experience along with pro backcountry snowmobilers Rob Kincaid and David McClure at its annual snowmobile dealer show. Consumers responded really well to the virtual snowmobile ride, leading Arctic Cat to create a second virtual ATV ride with Tony Stewart.

The ability to provide a realistic off-roading experience right on the showroom floor using VR is a game changer for Arctic Cat. When shopping for a car, you can usually test drive a vehicle right off the dealership lot; but there isn’t always a mountain of snow just outside a snowmobile dealership suitable for a test ride. VR will also help Arctic Cat dealers learn about new models so they can better sell them.


True Religion Apparel

As part of an initiative to “redefine the practice of clienteling,” the clothing company partnered with retail technology firm Aptos and Formula 3 Group last year to enhance its Apple Watch app “Band by True Religion.”

The Band app was fully integrated with Aptos’ CRM and Clienteling solutions, enabling True Religion sales associates to offer more personalized in-store customer service through rich customer insights made “glanceable” on their wrists. Every time a True Religion loyalty member entered a store, employees received a haptic alert via their Apple Watches. By tapping the watch, a wealth of valuable information about that customer, including his/her online and in-store shopping history, buying patterns and product recommendations, would appear on the screen for the salesperson to leverage. The solution also displayed social media profile pictures so employees could greet shoppers by name; revealed trending products; and filtered items by price point.

This kind of retail personalization does more than convert sales. With high employee turnover common in brick-and-mortar retail today, consumers are accustomed to working with a different salesperson every time they shop. True Religion’s Apple Watch solution makes the in-store shopping experience more pleasurable and helpful and therefore more significant. You won’t get this kind of service, with an associate by your side who seems to know you, anywhere else.


North Face

When it’s so convenient to shop online, new product or sales is not enough to lure customers into your store. Whereas Uniqlo and True Religion employed wearable tech to personalize in-store customer service; Arctic Cat and North Face looked to VR to make store shopping more fun.

In 2016, North Face debuted two Virtual Reality videos featuring immersive, “breath-taking” views of Yosemite National Park, Utah’s Moab Desert, and Nepal. The outdoor recreation brand also stocked three of its California stores with VR headsets so shoppers – especially millennials – could watch the videos, hopefully become inspired and make purchases to bring the VR experience to life.

For the Nepal VR experience, North Face partnered with Outside Magazine to send subscribers Google Cardboards with which they could view the video. This is essentially repurposing content, a way to bring the wilderness both inside stores and inside potential customers’ homes to encourage shoppers to get outside using North Face gear.

Is a single brain-reading wearable; a sales associate who knows your name and the items you left in your online shopping cart; or a store-exclusive VR experience going to save brick-and-mortar retail? No, but the above use cases are a good sign of brands experimenting with emerging technologies to revamp the in-store experience.

About EWTS Fall 2017:

The Fall Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place October 18-19, 2017 in Boston, MA is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations.

photo credit: n.karim Some People via photopin (license)

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