New technology is transforming retail. Retail Week examines how these innovations can be used to enhance the shopping experience.

How retailers can create the ultimate tech-enabled store (illustration by Leon Mussche).

Real-life Harry Potter-style Marauder’s Maps, payment so seamless that buying something feels like theft, and avatar staff in-store. These are just a few of the technologies that futurologists expect to make an impact on retail in the next few years – many of them are available or possible today.

Stores are changing as digital technologies creep into the physical realm of retailing. In some cases, stores will eventually act as gateways to retailers’ digital environments.

Dr Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT Global Services, says: “There’s a blurring between the physical and virtual space.”

Technology can do many things for a store. It can make shopping convenient for consumers via services such as click-and-collect, trumping wait-at-home online delivery models.

It can create an experience that immerses and entertains shoppers, prompting them to part with cash, while building a strong brand and loyalty.

And it can increase staff productivity by giving them access to more information, or productivity of store space by providing access to more products than the shelves can hold.

While some of these changes look far-fetched, many will come into play in the next few years, especially as the millennials – those born between 1982  and 2004 – make their mark on the workplace and accrue more wealth.

Millard says: “They are an interesting breed. At the moment, the sense is that they like physical shopping and are using it as a leisure activity and a means to meet friends.

“They are also horribly impatient – you can see why Amazon is talking about drones. Millennials are also incredibly savvy about technology.”

The ultimate technology-enabled store could take several different forms, depending on whether a retailer aims to create a convenient experience, a theatrical and engaging one, or a bit of both.

Senior analyst at The Future Foundation Will Seymour says digital screens or mobile screens could show shoppers a personalised set of products when they walk in the store.

Millard says utilitarian purchasers, meanwhile, want shopping to be easy and quick. “They want flexibility options, such as lockers. We are seeing convenience driving a lot of behaviour. Given that loyalty is dying, we need to look at technologies that can deliver convenience.”

Our imagined store, illustrated here, is a mix of everything; some of the technologies are available now, while others will be used in the future.

What is important is that while the store’s role is changing, there is no question that it remains a crucial and integral part of the shopping process. Now, however, there’s more potential to be imaginative about the role it plays.

Dynamic catalogues

Seymour says digital screens, window displays or mobile screens could show shoppers a personalised set of products when they walk in-store. This will be based on size and tastes, he says. “Instead of browsing through a rack of shirts, for example, the screens will show you what’s in stock in your size.”

Clothing delivered to your changing room

Senior analyst at The Future Foundation Will Seymour says: “If you’re looking to try something on, you just tap the product shown on a screen and it will be delivered to a changing room for you.”

Creative personalisation

3D printing of certain items will bring an element of personalisation in-store, while some shoe brands have already started allowing shoppers to design part of their own product. “The shop might not be where you actually create a product, but where you design it before it gets sent to you,” Seymour says. Millard adds: “Printing at home means instant fulfilment.”

Navigation

In-store Google Maps are only the start. A combination of beacons and internet-connected clothing could revolutionise in-store navigation. “Lightbulbs could sense people’s location and your smartshoes might vibrate to tell you where to go,” says Seymour.

Marauder’s Maps

The Harry Potter Marauder’s Map showed the location of friends; retail’s equivalent could show consumers where certain products are situated. “If you have items on your Amazon wish list, the map could show you where they are in the store,” Seymour says.

Wearable devices

Millard says: “One of the assumptions we can make is we will be seeing a lot more wearable devices, and not just glasses. Some of us may even have them integrated into our bodies. There will be an incredible blurring of the lines. At the moment it’s relatively easy, as we’re only dealing with smartphones and tablets.”

Artificial intelligence: avatars or robots in-store

Millard says: “Some very exciting innovations have emerged in the past couple of months, especially with Watson, IBM’s supercomputer.

“It is making this available in a couple of years to customer service applications. So instead of Googling something, you will be able to ask very natural questions, such as ‘what do you think of this?’ or ‘do I have enough money to buy this?’.

“Technologies such as this will change the dynamic around shopping research. It will become possible for shops to create very convincing avatars. The implications for FAQ-style questions are huge.”

Payment

“Payment should be so easy that buying feels like theft,” Seymour says. “You should be picking something up and walking out. It could work using object recognition or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging.” Mark Denton, head of presales consulting at BT Expedite, advises: “You need to start thinking about how your stores will be easier to trade.”