Blog Post from January 04, 2016

Closing the user experience gap between brick & mortar and online sales

Physical stores have been at a disadvantage compared to web sites on a couple of key fronts.

First, a website personalizes the experience to each individual. Whether it is through traditional geoIP location detection, or the use of cookies, pixel GIFs, or advertising trackers, the age of anonymous surfing is pretty much over. Customers accept this (in general) since the added benefit of a customized web experience with relevant content outweighs the perceived lack of privacy.

Secondly websites know your past shopping behavior. Large online shopping sites not only customize based on your profile, but also your past shopping habits. They can show those 'we think you may be also interested in...' headings. Networks have formed of interrelated websites through third party network and affiliate programs. A whole industry has evolved to match supply and demand-side online marketing so that online advertisers can now target '30-44 year old soccer moms who shopped last week at ... in zip code ...'.
Let's compare this to traditional brick and mortar. Surely a lot of progress has been made to link online and offline sales, but some fundamental differences remain. Of course physical stores are not able to change their layout and juxtappose different content based on the interest profile of who walks in, as websites can. Then, even when they identify a customer via a store loyalty card at checkout, it's really too late...shopping is over when at the cash register.

Thirdly there is no automated way to engage with visitors while they're shopping, unless you hire a bunch of sales assistants, not very scalable... E-commerce sites can offer a huge selection of 'long tail' products that just don't make economic sense to keep on store shelves. So when customers don't find what they're looking for at a brick & mortar store, the temptation is high to go to (fill in popular online website name).com and just buy the product right there.
The answer to this 'showrooming' has been to put one or a couple of large touchscreens in the store that link to the retailer's extended inventory system, with items that are available for drop-ship to the customer or later store pickup. But there's a few problems with those as well... Any touchscreen larger than tablet size quickly becomes really expensive. A first reason for this is of course economies-of-scale: there's no consumer product for such large touchscreens that drives down manufacturing cost. But it goes beyond that. Having managed integrated chip touchscreen controller product lines for several years, I can attest there's a technological reason also: the complexity of the electronics and the amount of 'material' needed to implement the actual touchscreen scales for some of the most popular touch technologies with the surface area of the screen, not with the perimeter of the screen, so as a result cost increases exponentially with screen size...

Finally these in-store touchscreens are not personalized either, and customers would be hard-pressed to enter their personal credit card information on them to actually complete a sale. So you still need a sales assistant to ring up the actual sale which somewhat defeats the whole purpose.

And even if you could solve all the above issues, it's still an unfamiliar device for the customer with probably an unfamiliar user interface, a major adoption barrier.

These large expensive custom touchscreens we had in our stores were used to look for products by SKU number. So we knew they were used by employees, not customers... - large US retailer

So the question is: can we do better? Is there a way we could bring the benefits of an online shopping experience to physical brick & mortar?

  • What if we could use large screens or projection systems that automatically show information about products that are aligned with the interests of the customer(s) standing near the screen?

  • What if customers could use their own phone, or an inexpensive small touchscreen device mounted close to the big screen if they don't have the 'remote control' app installed on their phone, so that they can override what's shown by default and immediately get to the product information they want to see?

  • What if, after product discovery, the actual sale could be completed from the phone itself; after all that probably already has the customer's credit card info stored on it?

  • And what if we could offer all this so it works with regular monitors/TVs with just a relatively inexpensive add-on device connected to each screen and no other custom hardware?

Well that's the vision we had for Sophatar.
Not just at retail stores, but at anypublic venue that has one-way information displays today.

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