The magical salesperson who knows exactly what customers need is something all retailers crave.

Until now, we thought that this was retail alchemy, but as Arthur C Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Right now, technology can combine behavioural science and artificial intelligence to replicate that experience in-store without a salesperson in sight.

I worked in retail for more than 15 years for many of the largest retail brands in Europe. What we are seeing now is a revolution in the way the retailers can communicate with customers to improve the relationship and increase sales. The technology is coming to a store near you.

The next stage of development will be inspired by the best online experiences and bringing them into the retail store environment

We are already starting to experience a more digitally focused customer experience in-store. You only have to go to your favourite fast-food chain to find that the person taking your order has been replaced with a smart menu in the form of a digital touchscreen.

But, in my view, this is missing the real opportunity. Rather than this technology simply being a way of more efficiently taking an order, it can, should and will be used to improve the whole customer experience, by ‘participating’ in the experience, making on-the-spot informed suggestions and guiding the customer through the buying process.

We have seen early examples of digital displays in retail using imaging technology to identify demographics, such as gender and age group, to offer more specific product recommendations. However, in the main, these have not really offered added value to the customer.

The next stage of development will be inspired by the best online experiences and bringing them into the retail store environment.

Bringing online in-store

Inspiration for this new in-store experience can come from platforms such as Instagram. Instagram is full of selfies, all of which give very clear clues to likes, aspirations and buying behaviour. Selfies provide much more information about people than ID cards.

Instagram is driving such high revenues for its parent company Facebook because it is able to analyse and interpret the data drawn from people’s selfies, enabling marketers to better predict their needs.

By using the latest imaging technology coupled with advanced behavioural science and AI, it is possible, with all relevant permissions, for an in-store screen to assess facial expressions in that context, analyse them and offer in real time the products that best suit.

For the consumer, this is offering a far better experience and for the retailer it drives better sales. We call this the ‘shelfie’.

The Holy Grail for bricks-and-mortar retailers is in turning their stores into the real-world equivalent of Instagram

A prototype MediaMarkt electrical retail store open in Barcelona features huge screens, but no products. In fact, it offers something better than the products normally on display at a big box electrical retailer.

It offers a life-size rotatable image of the product being used. An American-style fridge, for example, has doors that can be opened virtually, revealing fully stocked shelves. A washing machine can be seen going through its cycle. A hob can be seen laden with pans bubbling away.

Once a shopper has chosen a product, they order it on the same screen and it is on its way to their home. The next step in this revolution is to make both the products and the activities that they are performing immediately tailored to the customer’s needs.

Imagine being offered a fridge on a screen that looks like the perfect match for your taste and then, on opening the virtual doors, you find that it is stocked with the sorts of things that you are likely to buy or aspire to buy. The technology to do this exists today.

The Holy Grail for bricks-and-mortar retailers is in turning their stores into the real-world equivalent of Instagram.

Data science coupled with behavioural science and technology is coming to a store near you. In my view, permission-based data augmentation to improve customer experience and engagement will soon be vital for retailers.

Is this scary for the consumer? I don’t think so. This is simply bringing that wonderful experience people receive from a great, observant, customer-friendly sales assistant into every in-store experience.

It will soon be an imperative in order to maintain a competitive edge in bricks-and-mortar retailing. Buy now while shops last.