Part one of a new series, where Essential Retail puts itself in shoppers' shoes and explores the ways in which UK retailers are merging their digital and physical assets as they strive to create the fabled 'seamless customer journey'.

Nestled in the heart of east London's Shoreditch and within the hubbub of Spitalfields Market sits new British designer clothing retailer The Dandy Lab, which opened in mid-August and is bringing to life, in one shop, many of the new retail technologies that larger industry players are only just starting to consider implementing in their own estates.

With the aim of championing British design for men, the store is viewed by its co-founders as a shop-come-lab and is the result of work from a multidisciplinary team of specialists ranging from, academics, designers and creative technologists to experience architects, app developers and data scientists.

Peter Juen Ho Tsanga and Julija Bainiaksina, the co-founders and owners of The Dandy Lab, are entrepreneurial UCL graduates with an ambition to ultimately take the concept internationally. The store is supported by Cisco technological infrastructure and a host of innovative systems and features from third-party tech providers, with the founders looking to tap into this digital expertise to create interactive touchpoints for customers.

The data generated at these touchpoints will then be used to refine and personalise the retailer's customer shopping experiences over time.

The journey begins

Essential Retail took a private tour of the store, and it is clear The Dandy Lab wants to take customers on a journey from the moment they walk through the front door. Although acknowledging that individual customers want different things, the shop owners have clearly defined discovery and learning phases for their visitors.

The futuristic store from The Dandy Lab, in east London's Shoreditch

A story wall immediately greeting visitors utilises NFC technology, so customers can pick up a product, scan it, and learn about the background of the designer and the company in question by viewing information on a big screen. It's a method of educating people about the provenance of the items they are considering buying.

On the opposite wall, shoppers can scan a clothing tag to bring up details on a screen about the individual garment. Here, there will be an opportunity for people to share their shopping ideas with friends and family on social media.

Towards the back of the top floor, customers can experience "visual search" in action. A web cam linked to a large digital screen identifies individual items of clothing and then displays accessories and alternative similar ranges that may be of interest to customers looking to complete an outfit. It's a concept that Tsanga and Bainiaksina are looking to incorporate into the changing room of the future, therefore increasing the information available to shoppers as they try on potential purchases.

"We're targeting the Shoreditch creative and the young professional working in the area," noted Tsanga.

"The idea is that the technology is there so it can do the sales assistant's job if it needs to, but obviously we still need the human touch as well – which is particularly important for fashion."

Further screens are situated downstairs, which The Dandy Lab envisages will be used to connect customers with a remote expert or clothing supplier to talk about products. This system could also be used internally to accelerate ranges being delivered to the store, while they may also come into play for the live events expected to be hosted on the premises, to help publicise the store.

Like coffee chain Starbucks, wireless mobile phone chargers have been placed in the store, giving the increasingly-connected consumer an opportunity to top up their smartphone battery as well boost customer dwell time in the process. A coffee shop will also be opening downstairs for the same reason.

Tsanga commented: "We're seeing repeat customers. It's more about the education about why we're here. We've had customers here just scanning products, some don't want to use the tech, but we're getting to see how customers are interacting with the product.

"We also had some using the charging hotspots, just charging their phone. That's the beauty of the store, it's very dynamic and customers want to do different things in the store and we'll get to see more of that as it evolves."

Products have NFC tags, allowing customers to access digital information about items they may wish to buy

The Dandy Lab also has plans to use mannequins with beacons, in a similar manner to Ted Baker and Lyle & Scott, so customers can learn more about the promoted product ranges displayed at the front of the store, using a mobile app.

Tech infrastructure

There is free in-store Wi-Fi for customers, which along with footfall tracking technology can be used to help the retailer build up knowledge about individual visitors' shopping journeys. It is global infrastructure provider Cisco, however, that has laid the tech foundations of the store.

Cisco's Store in a Box solution underpins many of the systems behind the scenes, with its use of cloud technology meaning the shop does not have to install multiple servers in a back room. Cisco's services also stretch to connecting the assets of the building, such as lighting and air conditioning, giving the retailer access to a plethora of information which can be used to remotely manage general operations.

Ged Fitton, senior business development manager for innovation & solutions at Cisco UK & Ireland, said: "I'm confident that you won't find a retail environment in the UK at the moment that has this concentration of technologies.

"The proof in the pudding is really about how we make the tech enhance the experience. We aren't always going to get it right but if we fail, we'll fail fast."

He added: "It's a journey. It's not been built to be static – it will have things added and things taken away. We'll learn a lot in the next 12 months about what works and what doesn't work, and that ultimately will help a larger company like Cisco hone the proposition it takes to other retailers. It's a great collaboration to figure out what the art of the possible is."

Giving suppliers a chance to interact with end customers is also a novel approach taken by The Dandy Lab.

"It's an experiment but a real living store at the same time," Fitton added.

Third-party tech companies contributing to the store include Air Charge (wireless chargers), Hoxton Analytics (footfall measurement), Iconeme (mannequin beacons), Shopify and iZettle (mobile point of sale), and Snap Fashion (visual search).

In terms of immediately marketing the store, it will be a case of the shop hosting special events and general word of mouth. However, echoing the tech innovation trend set by the rest of the store, Tsanga also suggested NFC-enabled ice-lollies could be handed out to Shoreditch locals to entice them into the property.

Where is The Dandy Lab headed?

Tsanga has grand plans for The Dandy Lab, seems happy to play the role of guinea pig for the wider retail industry and is comfortable with Cisco using his and Bainiaksina's store as a "test bed" for future retail projects.

"The big vision is after this pilot phase we'll actually take it global and take all of our British brands with us," he explained.

"Everything is pre-configured in the cloud so all we have to do is plug and play into Tokyo, Shanghai, or the like. We know they'll like the products and the people there are not as scared of tech as perhaps their British counterparts are."

But in terms of retailing philosophy, the project is clearly deeper than simply selling products to new audiences.

"It's about the customer being seen on all the various touchpoints online or offline, and us as the retailer knowing who they are and offering a personalised customer service," Tsanga added.

"We're ultimately working towards personalisation in store."

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