Britain is becoming a nation of online shoppers. Recent figures predict that UK online retail sales will reach a staggering £52.25bn this year. It's an incredible success story but one that's too often portrayed as being at the expense of 'bricks and mortar' retailing. In my view, there's a strong future for both -- but with the caveat that retailers should bring together their online and physical stores if they're to continue to be successful.
Online retail is easy and convenient, but shopping is also a social experience and this is where 'bricks and mortar' retailing continues to excel. A visit to a physical store can mean time with family and friends. And there are many purchases that people like to make, where they are able to see, touch and even smell products before making a choice.
This means that despite the surging growth of online shopping, physical stores still account for the bulk of UK retail sales, with revenues only predicted to drop by 1.4 per cent in 2015 .
The "store of today"
But it's hard to escape the fact that the ease of online shopping is transforming customers' expectations. And in many circumstances, the physical store experience is simply not up to the challenge.
Shoppers online have quick and easy access to product information, reviews, stock availability, delivery options and prices. And of course, they don't need to queue. It's an intensely competitive environment but online retailers have responded by investing heavily, not only in the look and feel of their websites but also the supply chain and fulfilment systems that sit behind them.
In creating fantastic online shopping experiences, retailers have learned many valuable lessons about how to use technology to serve today's digitally-empowered customer. The next step for retailers is to understand how technology can be used in their physical stores to create great experiences too.
Digitalising 'bricks and mortar' retailing
Whenever I meet a retail IT director, they tell me that, whether it's for logistics, inventory control or payments, the first thing they need is a good IT network - a single, scalable backbone for all of their technology systems.
With a good network in place, there's a wonderful range of innovations that retailers can introduce to create the right in-store experience. One which stands out to me is the 'Intelligent Fitting Room'. Using RFID, it automatically recognises the number and details of items a customer takes into the fitting room. Once inside, the customer is presented with additional product information, recommendations and suggestions. Shoppers can also send an alert to a sales assistant for additional items, different sizes or colours without leaving the fitting room. What's more, customers can order and pay for goods to be delivered to home; and/or pay in the fitting room and just have goods wrapped at the till point. Online convenience, in-store.
There are also technologies available that can "recognise" the customer as soon as they enter the store. By using NFC (Near Field Communication) or QR codes, returning customers' mobile phones can be recognised, triggering the retailer's loyalty systems to create tailored, personalised messages (and promotions) that can be delivered to them.
As shoppers make their way around the store, beacons can trigger interactive store signage, and video footage can be tailored to the individual. At the customer's instigation, an in-store display, or their own mobile device, can provide additional product information about the clothes the mannequin in front of them is wearing.
'Smart' labels can provide a lot of information about sourcing, manufacturing and environmental data for electronic devices and other products. And for foods, they can tell you ingredients and calorie content. These can all be displayed on the shopper's mobile phone.
These are just some examples of how creative uses of technology can help retailers 'live their brand' and align their in-store and online customer experience. Only a few years ago, these technologies were the stuff of science fiction, but they're here now and available today.
Having joined many of my retailer customers at our "Alexander Black" concept stores in New York and Milan, to see these technologies in action, I can tell you that they really do create great shopping experiences. Used in the right way, they can help retailers keep shoppers like me coming back for more.