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Gene Roddenberry was a visionary. You may never have heard of him but he was actually the first to suggest sharing information on hand held tablets, displaying information on interactive touch screens, searching for information using voice-activated personal assistants and talking face to face over computers. His creations were years ahead of their time, light years in fact. As the inventor of the Star Trek series, he was able to suggest futuristic digital technologies no matter how absurd they seemed. Back here in the 21st century, some retailers are continuing to pioneer and experiment with digital technologies to drive revenue, giving them a huge advantage over their more cautious competitors.

Throughout the twentieth century, being unique in retail was a lot easier. No two stores looked the same and very few sold the same items. Those stores that did sell similar items to their competitors ensured repeat custom by building strong relationships with their customers. The last sixty years has seen an almost complete obliteration of personal-service-focused stores, replaced instead with multi-storey shopping centres, world famous chains and city high streets that look the same the world over. So modern uniqueness has had to take on a new form – a digital form.

From the biggest brands in the world, to the smallest local butchers, those that want to stand out from the crowd are creating unique digital experiences to get people in store, keep them entertained and informed while they’re there and even allowing them to purchase items they don’t have on site.

The Internet has spoiled modern shoppers to such an extent that they are used to seeing massive inventories that can only fit in websites. Then when they step over the threshold of a bricks and mortar store, they’re surprised and even irritated when an item is not in stock. As a result, many stores are using digital to not only take the surprise out of stock control but also giving shoppers an array of options to ensure they spend their money with them one way or the other.

British retailers are seamlessly integrating the online experience with the in store one so that ‘out of stock’ does not lead to ‘out the door’. In the stores of Scottish high street and internet branded footwear company Schuh, each staff member is armed with a digital scanning device that instantly allows them to see if the shoe is in stock. If it’s not, they can order it through their online shop there and then for you and even deliver it to your home within 24 hours. In the time it would have taken their competitor to go in the back, look around and then hit you with the bad news, Schuh have actually sent the same item to your home and you don’t even have to drag it around the shops all day.

American manufacturer New Balance have taken this one step further by having their entire shoe catalogue available on iPads dotted throughout their stores. So their shoppers can browse colours, sizes and prices of items that aren’t available there and then and buy them online if necessary.

Instead of small, easy to miss iPads, here in Australia, Van Heusen, a division of Gazal, installed large format interactive touch screens to the menswear floor of the Myer Sydney City store – the first large format interactive kiosk to be installed there. Using a high definition display, interested customers are offered personal styling advice and have access to a large catalogue of suggested coordinated looks at their fingertips. They can then delve right into detailed product information if they wish, maximising the customer interaction experience.

German automobile giants Audi have truly channeled Gene Roddenberry’s sense of abstract thinking by creating a showroom…without cars in it! Audi City uses huge state-of-the-art interactive screens in digital showrooms that are designed to fit into an area the size of a regular shop, making clever use of precious city centre space. A truly immersive way of interacting with potential customers and more importantly, enticing them. Audi has created an in store experience revolution to drive the future of car sales.

These are just some examples of retailers harnessing the power of digital to empower customers who are in search of more detailed information, more comprehensive product choice and even more freedom in how they shop. But what about those retailers that don’t want to wait for their customers to have to come looking for these options. What if they could send it to them before they even knew they needed it?

Well there is a game-changing technology currently being trialed by the leaders in digital innovation, Apple. Their low-powered wireless indoor positioning technology iBeacon enables small wireless location-aware sensor beacons to pinpoint where customers are in a store. Retailers can then send notifications of nearby products, offers and information available in store, straight to iOS 7 devices such as iPhones or display them on nearby digital signage. Apple themselves are in the process of installing iBeacons across 245 stores in the US, having already installed 20 of them in its flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York. Elsewhere in London, some cafés and hotels have signed up with a leading publisher to produce an iBeacon service that allows them to offer magazine apps free of charge to the public in particular stores.

A final word…

As long as retailers resist the urge to spam people’s phones with valueless marketing, iBeacon technology should enhance the possibilities of its predecessor RFID. Exciting innovations like this, along with all the others mentioned above, should always strive to enhance the overall customer experiences in store, not take away from it. If retailers continue to use digital to attract, engage, inform and direct customers, they will continue to boldly go where no retailer has gone before.