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The Future of Retail

November 23, 2015

I have to admit that shopping at Sam’s Club is not exactly a glimpse into the future of retail. 500,000 square feet of concrete floors and metal shelves doesn’t sing out cutting-edge. But recently, they added a machine that’s provides a look at a possible future. The machine is about half the size of a pop vending machine, and it sits quietly near one of the aisle end caps… until you walk by it. When it senses motion, as you approach, it perks up and in a friendly and very lifelike voice asks, “Would like a free sample?” Samples of nearly every food item or vitamin product are an anticipated event for kids and many adults during a Sam’s Club visit. These machines are part of the adventure as well. If you decide you want a free sample, you simply scan your membership card and out pops the free sample du jour.

The crazy thing about these machines is they still catch my attention every time. Since I’m now used to them, you’d think I should be able to walk by and never give them a second glance. But there’s something intriguing about these talking kiosks that always catches my attention. The voice is so friendly that I feel like I should apologize for not taking a free sample – even when I don’t need a sample of Ricola or eyeglass cleaner.

Recently, an article on the Chain Store Age website focused on one possible future of brick-and-mortar retail. A company called ShopWithMe has opened an interactive retail store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The store features a wide variety of super high-tech ideas that may chart a path for retail stores to follow.

Just like the sample vending machine at Sam’s Club, many of the high-tech gadgets of the future rely on motion detectors to create an interactive experience for customers. In one instance, as a shopper walks through the store, shelves on the wall will move towards them and a voice will recommend whatever item it holds.

Sensors will track shoppers and recommend products based on their browsing habits. The stores will also have merchandise displayed on fixtures with glass top digital displays. Merchandise can sit on top of the display, as well as live in a different video environment within the display. It probably won’t be long before 3-D holographic images will add a new dimension to merchandise displays.

Interactive kiosks will become members of the floor staff to help sell specific items. Your customers will be able to ask questions, check inventory, and create online orders, all from their friendly, interactive kiosk.  And of course, customers will be able to complete the transactions using a smart phone.

Speaking of smart, the CSA article also posed the concept of a “smart store.” Smart stores would have the ability to change a store entirely without rebuilding. The concept is aimed at being able to shift brands overnight, and for a museum store this kind of capability would allow the shift of themes just as easily. Imagine a future when your store (or at least part of your store) can completely echo a special exhibit that’s in your museum. It would probably be done with lighting, interactive displays, and video walls. Of course, this reliance on technology will make a tech savvy staff more important than ever.

As you free your imagination to think about possibilities of future retail, the end result may run the gamut from evolutionary to revolutionary. Simple additions to museum stores may include personalized greetings to museum members (perhaps linked to a chipped membership badge), and a smart membership badge could also track member’s buying history and suggests new items that complement their collections. Future museum stores could easily become the star attraction at the museum.

It’s easy to see that the future of retail is limitless and also fairly expensive. Most museum stores will have to pick and choose their technology based on both need and budget. But as with most technology, the price drops precipitously and it’s not long before the unimaginable becomes the affordable.

Steve White is a writer and entrepreneur based in Denver.

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