Voicetech in retail, coming to a smartphone near you

Image: Joshua Rawson-Harris - Unsplash
Alex Stockwell

Rapid advances in voicetech could well be the savior of a physical retail sector in worrying decline

As the media-dubbed ‘retail apocalypse’ continues swallowing up huge chains of stores across the country, it’s time to ponder the future of retail spaces, and how emerging tech such as voicetech, location services, and augmented reality could make brick-and-mortar retail the place to be once again.

The recent decline of the retail space/shopping mall concept has been in motion for a number of years now, and has clumsily been blamed on everything from Amazon’s dominance of ecommerce, to ‘trend-crazed’ millennials not spending enough of what little money they have on more stuff.

For example, the widely publicized death of Toys R Us served to hype the problems of certain chains as some sort of proof of a systemic meltdown of physical retail, citing online competitors and changing buying habits as the cause, completely ignoring the fact that the retailer was up to its eyeballs in debt and was, strategically, like a clown in a minefield.

But still, regardless of where to point the blame, the fact remains that brick-and-mortar retailers, particularly department stores and malls, are having a rough time keeping up.

But with a much-needed shot of tech-focused innovation, that could all soon change…

Given the history of physical stores, things do need to change

The story of the ubiquitous franchise store and good ol’ American mall all began when the atomization of the white-picket, middle class suburbs of post-war USA left many needing an all-important neutral place for shopping and social interaction.

Since then, the retail space has been as much of a part of the national identity as soaring eagles, muscle cars, a fondness for beef, and light beer which the rest of the planet finds particularly unfathomable.

That was then, this is now

However, the birth of the Internet changed retail forever, with many favoring the convenience and competitive prices offered by companies online. As a result, there has been a lot of talk that online shopping is harming traditional retail, but as mentioned before, it’s a complicated picture where, despite chains falling by the dozen, thousands of stores have opened over the last 18 months.

Yet, in truth, thinking about retail as either online or as a physical space is somewhat missing the point.

Shopping in the future will need to be an amalgamation of the both where customers use intuitive apps and personalized immersive experiences to seamlessly blend the two.

…and voicetech and other emerging innovations could save the day

In recent times, retail boardrooms have been volleying around terms such as “seamless experience” or “omni-channel” strategies, and, in essence, boiling down to knowing that a customer’s experience of a brand extends beyond what’s seen in-store.

Above all, is the fact that customers all have one thing in common; their smartphone.

It’s predicted that by 2020, half of all online shopping will be made via a smartphone, so in order to compete, the focus is shifting towards how tech in smartphones and devices can complement the physical shopping experience.

IKEA notably started using AR to give customers an idea of how their products will look in their homes, and location services will start becoming widely used to notify stores when a customer is approaching in order to collect their pre-ordered goods.

Also, RIFD identifying technology could gain proper traction on smartphones to allow for a far more personalized experience where digital display screens and, say, voice interaction via AI assistants could spring to life to help a person wandering a physical store.

All of these ideas will hopefully find wider adoption and help to shape how the physical retail space is going to be in years ahead.

Yet, even with these innovations set to reimagine the store, Amazon – with their own franchise of physical stores – have somehow managed to come out as the bad guy once again.

Amazon seemingly still don’t want to play fair

Amazon has shamelessly defended their own retail spaces by patenting tech that prevents customers from checking prices of products elsewhere.

The patent, titled “Physical Store Online Shopping Control” can tell when a person in store is looking on their phone for a better deal, and the system can then offer a complimentary item, a coupon, or simply block the content altogether.

(Erm, yeah. Try doing that with the European Union breathing down your neck.)

Yet finally, you simply can’t get away from the fact that AI-assistants and voice command services such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa are forever changing the retail landscape. Google has recently partnered up with Walmart to challenge Amazon, and Walmart products can now be ordered through the voice-controlled Google Home service.

As retail continues to evolve, convenience, value and the user experience are at the forefront of innovation, and as long as those factors remain central, voicetech will be play a huge role in the future of retail.

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