After the shock of the coronavirus on brick-and-mortar retail, stores have to work harder than ever to compete with each other, and with consumers’ increased appetite for ecommerce. One way of doing this is to use technology to create immersive experiences that will encourage consumers back in-store as the world reopens.

Technology can be used in various ways: for experiential purposes, to appeal to mobile users, increase convenience for shoppers, to make them feel safer amid the pandemic (e.g. with contactless options), or to promote a retailer’s online presence.

Here are 14 of the most innovative examples of in-store tech from the past few years and more recently since the onset of Covid-19.

For more on the use of digital technology in retail, take a look at Econsultancy’s Digital Transformation Monthly reports.

1. Burberry’s social retail store

July 2020 saw the opening of Burberry’s first social retail store in China’s tech capital, Shenzhen. In partnership with Tencent, Burberry hopes to capitalise on both the region’s love of luxury retail and social media; combining the two to make an immersive and interactive experience.

As users interact with a custom mini-programme within the WeChat app, for example booking appointments, learning more about certain products and sharing their own UGC, they accumulate a virtual social currency. This currency is then used to gradually hatch and evolve an animal character on the shopper’s mobile screen while they are moving around the store – a fun and adorable way of gamifying the store experience and rewarding customers for their engagement.

As is common in China, QR codes are also utilised extensively. Clothing rails and other displays include dedicated QR codes to scan in the WeChat mini-programme to help customers find out more about the collections and explore visually-rich storytelling.

2. Lush’s app-first stores

Harajuku, Japan, is home to the first (and very Instagrammable) Lush store that uses the #LushLabs app as the primary source of product information and in-store interactivity.

The store opened in late 2018 and is dedicated solely to the sale of its many different bath bombs, which are displayed in all shapes, colours and sizes, neatly on shelving units around the edge of the retail space, as well as on sushi-style conveyor belts. Shoppers are invited to select bath bombs that appeal to them by scent, visual appeal, or both, and then scan the product with the Lush Lens (a feature of the #LushLabs app).

Scanning the bath bomb with your mobile will reveal more information including its name, ingredients, properties and benefits, and visuals showing how it will dissolve in your bathtub. This is in place of the in-person demonstrations and black chalkboards commonly encountered in Lush’s other brick-and-mortar shops. Knowledgeable staff are also on hand to answer any questions and make recommendations if you’re looking for something in particular.

The Harajuku store is also completely packaging free, or ‘naked’ as Lush calls it.

3. M&S’s in-queue checkout

M&S became the first UK food retailer to incorporate on-the-spot payment in its stores in late 2020. Pay With Me allows customers with a small number of items to check out with a M&S staff member while they are queuing, rather than having to wait for a self-service or manned till to become available.

A handheld device controlled by the staff member is used to take contactless payment for the items, freeing up long queues to make the store less crowded and ultimately safer for those shopping in-store during the pandemic. Apple Pay is also accepted by the devices.

This technology has been rolled out to 200 stores so far as part of its wider effort to make shopping at their brick-and-mortar stores more efficient, convenient and safe, which includes being able to book an in-store shopping slot online in advance.

M&S pay with me

Image: M&S

4. & Other Stories’ smart vending machines

In summer 2020, Fashion brand & Other Stories debuted a vending machine experience that allows customers to try out a range of products from its beauty and fragrance offering.

The vending machine serves as an interactive hub, featuring a large touchscreen through which users can explore the available products in greater detail, alongside in-depth visual storytelling. It’s also very practical too, as visitors will be able to find their beauty and fragrance favourites, or something new, all in one place, rather than scattered on POS amongst its extensive clothing collections.

Currently, the vending machine is an exclusive experience found in & Other Stories’ flagship Paris store. Once enough data is collected on its use, the two brands plan on scaling the idea further across additional & Other Stories locations.

& other stories cosmetics vending machine in galeries lafayette paris

Image: H&M Group

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5. Hema’s QR codes

In 2016, Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba opened its first Hema store in China. The premise of the supermarket is to combine elements of online and offline shopping to create the ultimate seamless experience.

In-store, customers can scan QR codes on products to get more information (including the exact date food items were harvested, sourced, and delivered). Payment can also be made through the Hema app, making shopping quick and convenient.

Another impressive element is Hema’s in-store dining experience, which is powered by robots. Customers can use the Hema app to organise a seat at a table, as well as order items from the store to be cooked. Robots are used to move items from shelves to the kitchen and deliver the meals when they are ready. Pretty impressive stuff.

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6. Nike’s Speed Shop

In 2018, Nike opened a flagship store in New York City called the ‘Nike House of Innovation 000’. As you might expect from the name, it’s not your ordinary store, including digital elements to create an immersive and highly convenient experience for shoppers.

Alongside customisation studios and instant checkout points, a stand-out feature of the six-floor studio is the ‘Speed Shop’. This allows customers to reserve shoes online to try on in-store. More specifically, customers can arrive (through a dedicated entrance) to find a locker with their name on, which can then be unlocked via their smartphone.

Mobile check-out is also available, meaning customers do not even need to speak to anyone (let alone stand in a queue) if they want to buy the shoes in question. The ultimate in convenience shopping.

nike speed shop

Image: Nike

7. Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh automated checkout

Amazon has revolutionised the online shopping experience, but the brand is now intent on taking a slice of the physical retail pie too with its Go stores (branded as Fresh in the UK, where the first store outside the US recently opened in Ealing). They use a combination of computer vision, deep learning, and sensor fusion technology to automate the payment and checkout process. This means that customers can enter the store, pick-up items, and leave without queuing or checking out, while payment is automatically made through the Amazon Go app.

There are now twenty seven Amazon Go stores open in the US and reported plans for thousands more worldwide.

In August 2020, Amazon unveiled its Amazon Fresh concept store to coincide with its push to expand its grocery offering with demand at a record high. The store, which has fully opened in Woodland Hills, California, features the Amazon Dash Cart lane – a dedicated checkout area which allows customers to skip queues in other lanes if they have signed into the store using a QR code in the Amazon app.

Integrated Alexa devices placed around the store help shoppers navigate their way around more quickly and check off items on their Alexa Shopping List as they go.

Customer Rich DeMuro demonstrates the in-store experience in the video below:

8. Bingobox’s unmanned stores

Similar to Amazon Go, China’s BingoBox takes the concept of unmanned stores to the next level. First launched in 2016, there are now thousands of these tiny 24/7 convenience stores located around China for public convenience.

Customers must scan a QR code with the widely used WeChat app, which will grant them access to the store, before being able to browse up to 800 different SKUs including drinks, snacks and even items like condoms and sex toys which some may find awkward to purchase face-to-face with a human cashier. Once these products are selected, BingoBox visitors can utilise the self-checkout complete with RFID on packaging, which eliminates the need for scanning, and then pay using their WeChat account or AliPay. On the way out, there’s even a smart security system that identifies products on a person that have not been paid for and will not let the individual out of the store until they have replaced it on the shelf.

While this is a huge step forward in the widespread use of unmanned retail stores, the BingoBox is not yet fully automated – human staff are required to restock items on a regular basis and there’s also a remote customer service agent on standby in case users need further assistance.

9. Kroger’s digital price tags

In 2018, US grocery chain Kroger rolled out digital price tag technology across hundreds of stores. Called ‘Kroger Edge’, the tech digitally displays pricing and nutritional information, allowing the store to instantly and remotely update it.

Edge is part of a retail-as-a-service project between Kroger and Microsoft that was formed in 2019 with the aim of redefining the shopping experience.

Customer experience aside, the Edge technology is said to have an impact on the retailer’s sustainability efforts. According to Microsoft, the tech runs on renewable energy, while the illuminated pricing means that Kruger will be able to turn down overhead lighting and therefore reduce energy costs.

10. Zara’s AR window displays

In 2018, Zara introduced AR technology to its stores for a limited time through exterior window displays and special in-store AR zones.

Visitors to selected Zara stores were prompted to stand in a specific area of the shop floor and use their phone as a lens when held up to a sensor. Models then appeared sporting pieces from the fashion retailer’s latest collections and interacting with the space around them. This gave shoppers a clearer idea of the way the clothes hung on the body, and how they could be styled, without needing to venture into a changing room if they were pushed for time.

The exterior window displays worked in just the same way, except the virtual models used the empty display unit behind the window as if it were a catwalk and treated shoppers on the street as the audience.

AR was also rolled out onto product packaging, ensuring Zara’s ecommerce customers also got a taste of the technology and tempting them to visit the full virtual experience themselves in-store. As with the brick-and-mortar shops, online shoppers could scan a dedicated area of the packaging to replicate a miniature version of a catwalk.

11. Audi’s VR showroom

The experience of buying a car no longer starts at the dealership, particularly after the events of 2020. Consumers typically research via websites, social media, and motor forums before committing to a purchase, with some brands now offering online purchasing for convenience since their dealerships were forced to close under Covid-19 restrictions.

Audi proved it was ahead of the game in 2017 when it launched a virtual reality experience in global showrooms to offer a point of difference.

The VR experience allows consumers to configure their dream car, as well as explore the car’s exterior and interior in realistic detail. The experience also includes special ‘Audi moments’, such as the Le Mans 24 Hours race, whereby users can witness the pit-stop atmosphere.

Through VR technology, Audi is able to offer consumers a dynamic and interactive buying experience, transferring the process from a digital tablet to something much more immersive.

Audi-VR

Image: Audi

12. Chanel’s Boutique of Tomorrow

Chanel partnered with Farfetch to unveil the Boutique of Tomorrow at the brand’s flagship store in Paris in late 2019, which brings together online and offline Chanel shopping to create a streamlined omnichannel experience.

Speaking at Econsultancy Live 2020, Farfetch CMO explained the aims behind the concept, “When somebody walked into [the] Chanel boutique, the sales associates in store (through an app that was connected to the customer’s app) would know who they were and know what they’d got in their wishlist… had booked an appointment for them to come in store, and all those items that were in their digital wishlist would be miraculously waiting for them in the changing room.”

AR operated mirrors inside the boutique’s changing rooms then displayed stylist recommendations based on what the customer was trying on and suggest other products that could complement their choices. There were also several interactive digital devices scattered around the store which enabled customers to access exclusive content such as a virtual tour of Coco Chanel’s apartment.

Farfetch CMO Gareth Jones on the state of luxury fashion in 2020 and beyond

13. Sam’s Club’s robotic floor scrubbers and shelf analysts

AI company Brain Corp supply Sam’s Club robotic floor scrubbers with such technology to help automate monotonous, yet important, tasks that humans would typically perform in order to free up staff for crucial customer service and checkout roles.

Recently, as covered in November’s edition of the Digital Transformation Monthly report, Sam’s Club has expanded its deal with Brain Corp to pilot the installation of a new range of robots that analyse shelving units across its stores. Data collected by the robot can then be used to verify pricing accuracy, check product locations against the floor plan and monitor stock levels. Staff will receive real-time text alerts if anything is flagged by the system.

As automated technology like this becomes more commonplace in retail stores and fulfilment centres around the world, it is likely that we’ll see it being gradually adapted to carry out other administrative tasks in the day-to-day running of brick-and-mortar retail.

Below, you can watch a Brain Corp powered robotic cleaner in action.

14. The CornerShop from Capgemini, The Drum and SharpEnd

Finally, CornerShop is a brand-new live store experience in London created by Capgemini, The Drum and SharpEnd to demonstrate the possibilities of advanced retail technology to consumers, brands and retailers alike.

Split into four corners – dubbed The Automated Store, The Augmented Store, The Purposeful Store and The Personalised Store – which explore a different aspect of the in-store shopping experience, the shop will evolve over time as it is fed real-time data from those interacting with it.

Some of its many features include virtual try-on, with which you can create a digital twin of yourself to try on the latest fashion without the need for changing rooms, and a personalised experience using a mixture of Bluetooth location technology and customer preference input.

CornerShop even has its very own ‘vertical farm’, from which customers can select and pay for fresh produce grown in-store, as well as a contactless barista bar run by smart assistants.

In a press release, Capgemini commented, “Digital innovation can enable new ways to evolve the customer experience, improve in-store operations and enable consumers to rediscover the joy of in-person retail, through exciting new options to engage and shop.”

For more on retail, explore Econsultancy’s retail hub.