August 29, 2014

When shops talk to customers

Iconeme technology at a Bentalls store (photo: Iconeme)
Date with a mannequin: A passer-by starts a smartphone dialogue
Feeling lonely in an ever more digitalised world? Don't despair, because soon you might be able to chat with storefront mannequins. Anyone with a smartphone strolling down Regent's Street in London's West End, for instance, can already use them for information purposes.

Technology and design company Iconeme launched its "VMBeacon"-enabled mannequins in House of Fraser's Online Store (Aberdeen), Hawes & Curtis (London), Bentalls (Kingston upon Thames), and Jaeger (London) this month.

The Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) beacons, installed directly into each mannequin or visual merchandising product, transmit information that has been programmed by the retailer.

This enables customers to receive details via their smartphone about the clothes on display and allows retailers to engage directly with consumers who are shopping in, or passing by, a store.

As customers are now just as likely to have a smartphone with them as their wallet, will the technology be a game changer?

Window shopping goes online

The retailer now has access to analytic reports to gain customer insight and help improve both service and sales. Reporting can include shopper details, such as age and gender, their location, what outfit was viewed and whether a purchase was made online.

To access the technology, customers download the free Iconeme app for iOS and Android, which they can then use while shopping in one of the participating retailers. When customers with an Iconeme app are within a 50-meter range of the VMBeacon-enabled mannequin, they receive an automatic alert about the content they can access.

This includes details about the clothes and accessories displayed, such as price, and links to purchase the items directly from the retailer's website, or where they can be found within the store. Shoppers can also see more detailed photos and descriptions of the products plus save looks for later, share with friends and access additional offers and rewards.

Jonathan Berlin, co-founder and CEO of London-based Iconeme says: "This technology will change the way people shop on the High Street, as it brings together both on- and offline retail. Research shows that customers already use their smartphones while shopping in store, but until now, the retail industry hasn't realised the full potential of this."

Currently, similar projects are being trialled via marketing service providers at the shop entrances of a number of German retailers. These include Sportarena (Kaufhof), Desigual, Görtz, Promod, Runners Point, Stefanel, Jacques Weindepot, BoConcept and Adidas.

Enthusiastic retailers

Obviously, it is still too early to assess whether VMBeacon has increased store and online sales, but the UK retailers participating in the project are clearly excited about its potential.

Andy Harding, Executive Director for Multi-Channel at House of Fraser: "We are always looking at ways to integrate new and innovative technology to help maximise customer shopping experiences. With such demand from mobile devices, it's important we continue to bring new technology to our stores, and we believe that the Iconeme app provides retailers with an opportunity to really engage with their customers."

Edward Smith, Brand Manager of Hawes & Curtis: "Our visual merchandising team helps bring our product to life in the windows and now we can have a better understanding of how this impacts the man and woman in the street. The VMBeacon also works 24 hours a day, so we can have instant feedback and instant sales as a result of our displays, even if the store is closed."

Although it is by no means clear that BLE beacon technology will "overcome the division between online and bricks & mortar retailing" as some have claimed, it does represent a move in this direction.

Opening hours in the UK and Germany are still far more restrictive than in the United States. Therefore, European stores are essentially dead space for more than a third of the day. The new tech approach will at least liberate their front windows as these can now be accessed by customers around the clock.

Let the bananas talk

Admittedly, we are still quite a way from the BBC children's science fiction programme Dr. Who where murderous aliens disguised as shop mannequins chase unsuspecting shoppers down the street. But we may soon be able to talk with them via natural-language apps such as Apple's Siri.

At first blush, the whole story might seem more appropriate to our sister fashion publication, TextilWirtschaft. However, tech companies such as Iconeme are challenging the boundaries of classic bricks & mortar retailing and creating new options for customers that could also affect food and general merchandise retailers.

How long, one asks, will it be before washing powder, yoghurt and pineapples refuse to wait passively for a few tech-minded customers to scan their QR code and for them to start a conversation with us?

Related articles in German: By Jörg Rode in Lebensmittel Zeitung.

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