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How retail store technology is filling the ‘imagination gap’

Retailers are using in-store technology to reduce the time between shoppers’ consideration phase and purchase, but how is it engaging them and triggering conversions?

Heads of e-commerce and digital directors, especially those working for big ticket item retailers, cite “visualisation” technology as a key investment priority to help convert online shoppers.

Whether it is 360-degree imagery, augmented reality (AR), videos or live broadcasting of the products in question, online retail departments are introducing an array of tools to give customers an authentic view of what an item looks like ahead of a remote purchase.

AO.com, Argos, Heals and Ikea are a notable quartet of retailers that are either introducing this technology or on the hunt for it, but there are many more.

The described shopper problem is one argument often touted by industry commentators as a key reason for stores’ continuing existence in a world where so many things can be purchased via the internet. “People love to touch and feel things. Retail is an emotional, sensual experience,” they say – and, in many instances, they are right. 

Interestingly, there is a burgeoning group of retailers realising that this visualisation technology has just as an important role to play in the store environment as it does online. Two companies deploying such technology to positive commercial impact right now are luxury consumer electronics business Bang & Olufsen and jewellery retailer Swarovski.

Both have introduced it to help bridge “the imagination gap”, although that phraseology can be attributed to Bang & Olufsen’s global retail experience manager, Simon Silva, who gave details of his AR Experience app at a Future Stores event in London in May.

“It’s really important to fill the imagination gap for customers to allow them to see what a product would look like in a home,” he says.

“Whatever you do in your store needs to resonate with the core competencies of the brand, be relevant to the consumer and take into account trends – but don’t let the latter be the single thing that drives you and don’t let tech drive your decision-making”
Simon Silva, Bang & Olufsen

“We might not have a particular size, finish or placement variation on display in store, so staff can place a digital interpretation of the product and customise it within the app. Then we can talk about making a purchasing decision using a physical visualisation of the product in store.”

The app is viewed as a sales tool rather than an audience builder, although it is available to download from Apple’s App Store if customers wish to do so. It is used by Bang & Olufsen staff in the store, as Silva describes, or during visits to customers’ homes, so would-be shoppers can visualise a product in its proposed location.

Silva, who led the project, says his key goals were to remove friction in the retail store and to help the customer make their decision quicker, but he says it is crucial not just to adopt technology for the sake of it. “Cut and paste” technology deployment, where retailers copy one another just to keep up, is not advisable, he argues.

“Whatever you do in your store needs to resonate with the core competencies of the brand, be relevant to the consumer and take into account trends – but don’t let the latter be the single thing that drives you and don’t let tech drive your decision-making.”

A technology Forerunner

Swarovski’s approach to trialling new in-store technology has evolved over the past few years, resulting in the unveiling of screens in a selection of its stores that feature “virtual try-on” technology – enabling people to project jewellery images on to their bodies.

Bang & Olufsen’s Silva might describe this as Swarovski’s way of filling the imagination gap in the store, but it also enables the retailer – which doesn’t have many large-format stores – to offer an endless aisle of inventory in its smaller sites. Even if the physical product is not kept in store, customers can try it and order the item for home delivery.

At the Future Stores event, Swarovski’s IT retail innovation manager, Stefan Schmidhammer, said the company initially opened a tech-enabled pop-up store with no physical inventory in Toronto, but customers were also keen to see digital displays in permanent shops.

Two flagship stores, including one in London’s Oxford Street, are now used to test ideas. Dubbed “Forerunner” stores, they are subject to continued experimentation, allowing Swarovski to explore the use of in-store tech in a real-life environment.

“You need buy-in from the store staff – if they don’t realise it’s beneficial for them, they will not use it [because they are highly sales driven],” said Schmidhammer, adding it is important to experiment, learn from mistakes – “even better, the mistakes of others”. 

Swarovski is also introducing style guide inspiration via its in-store touchscreens. Users are asked several questions about their likes and dislikes, before suitable jewellery products are recommended on the screens – another way of filling the imagination gap.

Visualisation technology for staff

Both Silva and Schmidhammer warn of the dangers facing retailers of introducing technology without reason to do so. Many retailers have fallen into this trap.

It is why, for some, using technology to fill the imagination gap has become more of an internal operational tactic. Getting the technology right for staff will lead to getting the service right for the shopper is their thinking here.

At another retail event in May – Cegid Connections 19 in Madrid – Ricky Drematagollage, global IT manager at fashion retailer Gant, said the company’s current goal is to bring together all disparate technology onto one system – and he’s exploring how French software partner Cegid’s Y2 product can help with that process.

“We are using endless aisle, so [if] the customer goes in the store and the product is not there, we can get it delivered to [their] house,” he says, describing what is currently quite a complex and unconnected system across Gant’s different markets.

“Today, we have an iPad [in-store], but we don’t want to do that – we want to do all that in one system so it’s easier for staff and looks better and faster for the customer as well.”

UK grocer Waitrose is further down that path, having identified that in-store staff had been burdened with too high a volume of technology to use in their everyday roles. Stuart Eames, retail innovation lead at the supermarket chain, jokes that utility belts were required to carry it all.

“In-store technology for Waitrose is first and foremost putting employees’ first,” he states. “If we focus solely on the customer, what we have found in the past is we’ve neglected what is our prize asset – our employees.”

The retailer has replatformed all devices on to a single Android application and rolled out 10,000 devices hosting the app, meaning all store staff can access digital technology, media, product and stock information, and can be connected via phone or messaging.

“Having a connected mobile workforce that can interact with customers is a fantastic step forward,” says Eames, adding that it is useful, for example, when staff are required to discuss nutritional or dietary concerns with shoppers. At that crucial point between consideration and purchase in food retail, this approach enables Waitrose to “deal with customer requests there and then”, according to Eames.

The “imagination gap” cited by Bang & Olufsen’s Silva was the topic of a study by home design platform DigitalBridge in 2017, which argued that the home décor sector alone misses out on £1bn annually due to uncertainty in the decision-making process.

That potential missed sales opportunity due to customer indecision or lack of information is a focus of attention for retailers operating in all sectors, though – and they are adopting technology in different ways to address it.

Read more about technology in retail

  • Customer experience is becoming of increasing importance in an omni-channel world, but technology adoption has stores cornered, forcing them to rethink what value stores bring to an organisation and the customer journey.
  • British tailor Paul Smith has been working with Cegid since 2015, but it is now considering upgrading to the provider’s latest software to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

This was last published in June 2019

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