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How consumers are holding back retail tech advances

Colin Neagle | June 3, 2014
The future of retail is here but many consumers are just not ready for it.

future retail

The in-person shopping experience, from finding the right product in the store to trying on clothes in a fitting room to paying a cash register, is far more archaic than it needs to be.

"The fact that you have to take a product up to a desk and hand them a piece of plastic or cash, that's from the day one of retail from 1850," Scott Bauer, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and an author of the firm's Total Retail report, says.

"You can buy your cup of coffee at the major coffee house and not have to whip out your plastic," he adds. "You can pay with your phone. That type of technology is dead simple and has been around for years. It's more about getting consumers comfortable with that, sort of, allowing the merchant to see what your purchases are because you're being tracked on what you're buying."

Mobile payments are just one small example of a much larger evolution in retail that has yet to take place. Take apparel shopping as an example. With the technology available, such as augmented reality, sensors, and mobile payments, shoppers today should be able to find a shirt they like, see how it would look on them through an augmented reality app, pay for it from their PC or mobile device, and then either receive it in the mail on the same day or stop by a retail storefront to pick it up.

Shoppers who would rather see or feel a product in-person could use location-based services and in-building mapping apps to find the items they're looking for immediately, and sensors installed on the store shelves would make sure the product is always in stock. And mobile payments, by their nature, can be made in-store, replacing the cash register and its long lines.

Much of this technology is ready to use today, and could be reaping benefits for both shoppers and retailers. The barrier that has prevented the retail experience from evolving since the pre-Internet age lies in the consumers themselves.

"On the barrier side, it's not technology as much as it is business case," Bauer says. "So it's a bit of the chicken and the egg. The retailers can offer it, but their question is, they can spend all this money to offer the technology, but will people adopt it? They really want to see the gains for it."

Most consumers today are what Bauer calls "digital converts." They may have smartphones, but rarely use them to their full potential. They didn't grow up with the high-tech tools that are available to them, but adapted to them, often skeptically. Until the digital natives those who don't know life without the Internet and more actively adopt new technology outweigh the digital converts in the marketplace, retailers are going to be wary of investing in and deploying technology that might scare off traditional consumers.


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