The Fate of Wearables in Retail: A Waiting Game

Written BY

Emily Friedman

April 5, 2016

Retail is an interesting industry in which to ponder the future of wearable technology, because it banks so much on consumers. Retail literally thrives on consumers–their likes and dislikes, shopping patterns, buying habits, technological means, etc. And since retailers must be so in tune with consumer trends and preferences, they must also wait upon consumers to determine the real or ultimate value of wearable technology to their brands. Retailers are not just evaluating wearables from an employee standpoint – deciding whether to arm workers with wearable devices like smart glasses and smartwatches to help them perform faster and better – but also from the customer POV. This is an industry where consumer-facing applications of wearables are not just a possibility but rather a must, and employee-facing ones are the option.

As a retailer, you have to ask many questions: Are my customers buying wearable devices? Are they actually using them and deriving any value? How are they using wearables–to do what, which applications, what information do they want to access in this way (as opposed to via their smartphones), and what functions do they want wearables to perform? What kinds of data are wearable devices collecting on my customers and how can I derive insight from their wearable data to improve customer service, boost sales, etc.? Is there enough of a consumer market for wearables that I should consider developing an original branded wearable product, or should I just create an Apple Watch app? How do I help customers to shop more conveniently via wearable tech? Will offering relevant, targeted sales information and discounts via a smartwatch app make a difference? What about having my sales associates use wearables to access customer information while assisting shoppers? Or should I invest in AR/VR technology to enable customers to shop virtually and shop better while in the store? Or do I need to do all of the above?

The fact is that the jury is still out as far as what consumers honestly think of wearables and their continued/future use of the devices. And so it becomes a kind of waiting game: Can retailers engage with customers through wearable tech/consumer wearables? Well, not until they know how and if consumers will be using them. Where is this all heading? Are consumers going to want communication, navigation, payment and/or health capabilities from their wearables, and what does that mean for a retail organization?

All of this new wearable technology – from watches that provide quick, glanceable notifications right on our wrists, to smart shirts that track our movements, health stats, and potentially even charge our phones, to glasses capable of transporting us into virtual worlds/environments – it’s very exciting. But although it’s interesting and even fun, it is not clear whether this technology is solving a real customer problem. What is the issue that needs addressing and does wearable tech hold the key to meeting shoppers’ needs?

Retailers have always had to consider the complicated relationship between people and their clothing/possessions, along with imagining every aspect of the shopping experience and buying cycle. As we have become less and less tied to the brick-and-mortar store – from catalogs and over-the-phone onto the growth of online shopping and through to the present reality of on-the-go browsing and purchasing via smartphone apps and tablets – retailers have had to advance their thinking and offerings to keep up. Does the rise of wearable technology and the arrival of augmented and virtual reality on the scene necessitate yet another revolution in retail? How do wearables fit into omnichannel retail? Will AR/VR rejuvenate the in-store shopping experience or seal its fate, further energizing and strengthening the online marketplace?

At the end of the day, retailers have a daunting task: They have to figure out how their employees might use wearable devices to perform tasks and serve customers, and whether they will need to use such devices. They have to figure out whether customers are going to want more wearable products like smart apparel and accessories and whether they should design/produce something wearable to sell. And they have to figure out whether customers are going to use those wearables already on the market (like smartwatches and AR/VR headsets) to shop and pay for their goods at home, on-the-go, and in the store…

Essentially, when it comes to the fate of wearable technology in the retail industry, retailers have to predict how people will shop, what they will buy, and what the in-store experience is going to be like.

No big deal, right?

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