Shoppers opened their pocketbooks wide over the holidays in 2016, pushing retail growth estimates (the Wall Street Journal reported the fastest growth rate since 2005) and consumer confidence to new heights ; with ecommerce a particular bright spot with over $110 billion in sales, according to Forrester Research.
Technology contributed mightily to that retail success, at every stage and angle of the shopping journey, both in brick-and-mortar stores and online ; from browsing, point-of-sale and shipping to checkout, supply chain, payments and much more. That won't change in 2017, as top retailers have already long-planned their technology priorities for the coming year. Here, experts weigh in on some of their top technology predictions:
1. Alternative checkout methods will continue to grow.
With a smartphone in every pocket and the expansion of advanced barcodes and imaging technologies for scanning products, faster alternative checkout methods will continue to grow across the retail sector, says Tony Rodriguez, CTO of digital identification solutions provider Digimarc. "Sam's Club already offers in-aisle checkout, while Amazon gained attention for its vision of grocery shopping sans checkout lines, so anticipate that other grocers and retailers will seek shortcuts for shoppers that they hope will breed brand loyalty," he says. "We expect retailers and brands to lead the way with enhanced product packaging and other options for easy checkout."
2. The store associate will become a high-tech hub.
The No. 1 investment in retail will be the store associate and how to turn them into a beacon of knowledge and relationship builder, says Bill Zujewski, executive vice president of marketing at mobile platform Tulip Retail. Retailers have begun investing in mobile solutions that give access to the entire product inventory and product details, but that's no longer enough ; instead, store associates need to be able to anticipate and surpass customer expectations.
"When a customer comes into the store, sales associates will be notified and ready with product offerings based on valuable data they have at their fingertips including the customer's recent purchases, loyalty rewards level, online browsing history, activity log and shopping preferences," he says.
3. Chatbots will become a priority retail channel.
[This year] will be a foundational one when it comes to applying AI-powered chatbots that are improved with new data streams and integration across channels, says Dave O'Flanagan, CEO and co-founder of cloud platform Boxever. "Chatbots are only as valuable as the relationships they build and the scenarios they can support, so their level of sophistication will make or break them," he says. A recent survey found consumers aren't yet as excited about responsive chatbots as brands think ; so retailers will need to focus their attention on improving their messaging applications to establish more meaningful connections between their brand and customer, he adds.
4. The internet of things (IoT) will boost supply chain efficiency.
IoT is helping retailers connect physical and digital worlds and to facilitate real-time interaction with consumers both inside and outside the store, says Andrew Hopkins, IoT lead for retail at Accenture Mobility, part of Accenture Digital. "Connected devices and products will enable retailers to optimize operations in the face of a more complex supply chain, increasingly important digital channels, and evolving customer demands," he explains.
Some examples: Managers could use smart tags to adjust pricing in real-time; IoT-enabled sensors would allow store managers to monitor and adjust lighting and temperature settings; businesses could use sensors to automate manual functions such as tracking inventory or changing prices. "This would give sales associates more time to spend interacting with customers, further improving the in-store experience," he says.
5. Social media will continue to become more shoppable.
Retailers have learned to love consumer-generated content, with photo sharing and hashtags turning into word-of-mouth marketing that works. Now, we'll begin to see more retailers investing in technology that makes those content experiences more shoppable, says Jim Rudden, CMO of Spredfast. "Instead of having to leave the page or site to search and buy the products they see in photos, consumers will be able to easily click on the content, and purchase the products within, during that moment of discovery," he says. "Those consumer-generated pieces will take on a whole new life."
6. Digital convergence will be a big buzzword.
The ecommerce of 2017 and beyond will be all about starting to focus on the convergence of a variety of digital technologies ; using voice interfaces, the power of AI and realistic, personalized avatars that support the shopping experience, says Shirley Romig, global retail strategy lead of digital marketing consultancy SapientNitro. "Imagine talking to your personal shopper on the phone and instantly seeing an assortment of dresses you are looking for to wear to your daughter's graduation," she says.
"You digitally 'try on' the dress using your exact, 3-D image for fit, tell your shopper to size up and check out via voice command." Ecommerce will evolve to include AI-powered online, personal shoppers that are trained to know preferences, like a favorite store sales associate: "Instead of onerously sorting through pages of product, soon you'll be able to talk to your AI via your mobile phone and 'she' does all the leg work."
7. 2017 will be the year of the retail API.
APIs have revolutionized industries by bringing consumers apps such as Uber, Google Maps and Pandora ; now, retail has started to catch on, says Jett McCandless, CEO of supply chain technology provider project44, though he adds there are still strides to be made in the industry's widespread understanding and implementation of APIs.
"Retail CIOs will need to understand the impact this technology has on inventory optimization; setting ; and meeting ; customer delivery expectations; adhering to the demands of today's always-on consumer and driving real-time visibility across the entire supply chain network," he says. "Web-service APIs empower retailers to compete in the new on-demand reality by delivering goods in the shortest timeframe possible with the highest level of transparency and operational efficiency."
8. Mobile payments UX will become more seamless.
Retailers know consumers want a seamless shopping experience ; and mobile payments technologies are struggling to bridge the gaps. Look for greater consistency in UX across payment platforms in 2017, as well as increased security measures and the introduction of digital verification solutions, says Cody Winton, CEO and co-founder of personal identity platform Credntia.
"There will be efforts to create a more cohesive payments process, and ease fragmentation across platforms and solutions in the FinTech space," Winton says. "For example, the introduction of a digitally-scanned license or passport at point of sale will create a seamless user experience by allowing consumers to conveniently switch between the mobile wallet or banking app and a digital credential management app, instead of needing a physical wallet."