If there is one constant theme in retail innovation, it’s how ideas and advances can Make Things Easy. And this is as much true for businesses as it is consumers. Clever technology means that robots – such as the automated piece-picking arm made by Righthand Robotics– are a realistic partner for e-commerce, easily integrated to order fulfillment lines. Direct-to-object printing from Xerox means retailers can print images on a variety of 3D objects and textures, making personalization quicker than ever. Fashion is charting a similar course, with Thursday Finest offering straight-to-consumer, custom garments made by its “3D-knitting robot”.

These aren’t things you’ll find at some “shop of the future” event. They are things you can get now. And they are the tip of the iceberg. There are customer service robots, gamifications that use AR to put “virtual” furniture in your home to try before you buy…the list goes on. The technology they use isn’t brand new, but the combination of affordability and application is. Retail, so often the front line for consumers to experience technology, is putting theory into action.

Footwear has perhaps the prettiest examples of how putting the customer first can solve some of the business’s more gristly goals. Kegan Schouwenburg, CEO and co-founder of SOLS, uses combinations of technology to answer the question: “How can I find shoes that fit?”

She paints a picture of the size of the problem – and the opportunity – in just a couple of stats. First off, she says standard sizing is a nightmare. There can be up to two size changes between shoes in the same size, and 53 percent of people are wearing the wrong shoe size. Small wonder that there is a 30 percent return rate online for shoes – 80 percent of which are due to poor fit and 75 percent result in refunds. “This is an industry in which 15 percent of people who buy online and don’t get a shoe that fits as expected is a good result.”

SOLS developed SIZERIGHT, which uses iPhone and a standard piece of paper to measure your feet. It’s simple and easy, giving potential buyers a true measurement and allowing retailers to make informed recommendations both online and in-store. “It impacts the e-commerce experience, but also retail and inventory,” she says. “Imagine going into a shop and the salesperson saying ‘Hi x, welcome to the store, these are the shoes that are going to fit you that we have in stock.’” It impacts design too, allowing manufacturers to look at the data and design according to the feet of people who want to buy running shoes, walking boots or whatever. “The problem is solved at the start rather than at the end.”

This perspective, the idea of using technology to catch people at the actual point of purchase and make that experience easier is finding its way onto our roads too. General Motors and IBM have joined forces to create what they call a cognitive mobility platform: OnStar Go. Launching April 2017, it uses Watson to create that “Knight Rider” moment, with the auto in a leading role as trusted co-pilot. As you’d expect, it links the car’s systems (traction control, telematics etc) with OnStar and The Weather Company, but future iterations will also see it link with and choreograph all mobile touchpoints.

This means as well as knowing how many seatbelts are clicked in your car, things like buying while mobile and intuitive curbside pickup are easier. So if you’re on your way to a store, the store can see you’re on your way and get your stuff ready and load it for you. Or if you’re on your way home from work it can remind you to pick up things from your shopping list at the right exit, so you don’t need to go out again. It’s all about making your experience on the road easier, more enjoyable and more efficient.

Innovation is no panacea, but it does give businesses options for delivering better, more enjoyable experiences that engage customers like never before. One of these is to put into practice what the tech scene and future forecasters have been theorizing – and whether a clever start-up or a major player, the best time to improve your customers’ lives is right now.

 

Originally published on the Future of Customer Engagement and Commerce.