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Wearable Technology by Industry: Retail

Written BY

Emily Friedman

May 18, 2015

Many analysts predict that the main beneficiaries of wearable tech will be those businesses that routinely involve deskless workers performing task-based activities. Retail is a great example—large store environments as well as wholesale warehouses are very mobile and task-driven, and could greatly benefit from wearables to increase efficiency in a range of activities, from receiving inbound deliveries and restocking shelves behind the scenes to creating an enhanced, seamless shopping experience on the consumer front.

Some of the proposed applications for wearables in retail bank on shoppers owning their own wearable tech devices, whether Google Glass or smartwatches like the Samsung Gear or Apple Watch. Retailers could then create wearable apps, and send special, targeted offers to connected consumer devices while in the store. Other discussed “applications” focus on how retailers will need to carry wearable tech products for consumers to buy. Seeing as wearable technology is expected to grow to be a $19 billion industry by 2018, it is no wonder Amazon opened its Wearable Technology Store or that much of the discussion of wearables in the retail space centers around the consumer’s POV. But we see even more immediate potential in back-end applications when it comes to WT in both retail & wholesale.

Wearables have the potential to improve the in-store customer experience not just by upending point-of-sale processes and providing more relevant (targeted) access to offers and deals, but also by changing how retail employees do their jobs. Wearable tech can enable workers to access information on-the-go, without having to visit a computer terminal or “go in the back.” This saves time, thereby boosting efficiency and productivity, and also prevents a sales associate from ever having to leave the customer’s side during the sales cycle. By connecting employees to all of a retailer’s digital resources in one device, wearable tech can create better, more informed customer service, and a more seamless retail experience for all. This means smoother sales, less wait time for customers, and increased staff productivity all around.

Wearables could also be employed in both retail & wholesale for training purposes and to track the performance of sales or warehouse floor staff. Training exercises along with everyday tasked-based instructions could be deployed via a smartwatch, for example; and data analytics from wearable trackers could be used to make real changes in the workplace – whether that be a store or warehouse environment – based upon behavioral information harnessed from workers’ engagement with the devices.

In a very general sense, wearable tech stands to usher in a new era of retail by facilitating greater ease of communication across all touch points in a single company along with stronger employee performance support. For instance, smartglasses supporting augmented reality capabilities can conceivably increase efficiency in store inventory management, effectively train staff, and increase process compliance in a warehouse.

Currently, the devices being explored include wearable stock scanners, wireless headsets, and digital lanyards; smartwatches and other wrist displays; and smartglasses. There are even devices such as Theatro’s Wearable Computer (kind of like an updated walkie talkie) created specifically for retail applications. But there are several obstacles to overcome before these gadgets will go mainstream in the retail world, the most fundamental being tradition itself.

Not only is the retail industry historically slow to the game when it comes to seizing upon new technology, but retailers are also very capital constrained and usually weary of major investments in tech targeted towards employees. The Container Store is a notorious exception, and even it has yet to implement Theatro’s wearable device across all its stores. There needs to be some maturity as far as the cost of the hardware and form factor for retailers to more strongly consider arming their employees with wearable technology.

Of course battery life is another challenge; currently, most wearable devices are not capable of lasting through an entire retail or warehouse shift. But perhaps the biggest issue holding wearable tech back from having a truly significant impact in this space is the difficulty in unlocking the value of the data. It is not clear at the moment just what to make of the data collected by wearables or how to put it to use. In other words, it is difficult to access the data in a meaningful way that might lead to key changes or improvements in an organization (in structure, process, workforce, etc.). Theatro’s wearable solution, for example, connects all a store’s employees. This is great for in-store communication and employee morale but could also potentially generate valuable insight about employee engagement and other factors that would indicate areas for change in the workplace.

Further Reading