Heidi.com's 'Retail of Tomorrow' store: in focus

As technology continues to dominate the world of retail, many brands feel that they must go online or go out of business. There is however a third option. By embracing the personalisation technologies used online, high street stores can begin to develop a combined 'best of both worlds' approach to retail.

Despite regular commentary pieces surrounding the 'death of the high street', there remains a wide variety of reasons why consumers still prefer to visit local stores. While online shopping provides a highly convenient option, it is yet to truly recreate the social experiences involved in a traditional shopping trip. Offline shopping is just as much about creating an enjoyable and ultimately social experience as it is about making a purchase. It is these social and psychological elements of shopping which simply cannot be replicated online. The desire to take a day out, walk around, speak to shop assistants, and physically touch a product before buying are all factors that will not suddenly disappear simply because people have the option to shop online.

So why are so many people opting to shop online? In the online realm customers receive customised recommendations based on their previous browsing habits; they can easily find previously seen items through the development of wish lists and favourites; and most important of all, they can benefit from a seemingly endless availability of options and stock.

A couple of years ago, Swiss retailer Heidi.com approached Samsung Semiconductor and its partners with a revolutionary idea for a new retail store. By utilising the latest technologies, Heidi wanted to try and combine the social benefits of high street shopping with the personalisation technologies found on online stores. By combining these two approaches, they hoped to provide a brand new template for the future of high street retail.

Launched under the title of "Retail of Tomorrow", the new Heidi store was unveiled in Neuchatel, Switzerland, earlier this year. In addition to Samsung Semiconductor, the store also brought together a series of third parties looking to be a part of the future of retail. Samsung Chemical provided solid and quartz surfaces, Zaha Hadid Architects designed the flexible interior, EG Electronics provided touch panels and displays, while INOX Communications integrated Red Ant’s mobile software solutions with the user interface and the backend ERP system.

Having combined all of these revolutionary technologies into a single store, Heidi is able to provide customers with a finite space within which they could browse an infinite number of products and variations. Key to this solution was a recently developed 'Endless Shelf' display. By using this six-foot touchscreen device, customers at the Retail of Tomorrow store were able to touch and try on a selection of physical garments, while also flicking through an infinity of different colours, sizes and potential customisations.

As customers have grown increasingly used to shopping online, the demand for unlimited stock and infinite customisation has rapidly shifted from an additional benefit to an expected norm. By adopting revolutionary technologies such as the Endless Shelf, high street stores will now be able to provide the same level of freedom and choice that customers have come to expect online. For many retailers, this ability to combine the social aspects of offline shopping with the infinite options of online stores could be seen as a significant competitive advantage.

That said however, it is this type of competitive online vs offline mentality that the Heidi store is looking to address. Retailers need to move away from their perceptions of the high street and online as competing forces and instead consider them as complementing each other.

In achieving this goal, the key will not necessarily be technological innovations. Instead, retailers must look to focus their efforts on attempting to improve their broader customer experiences. In some cases this may be improved technology, in others it may be good old-fashioned customer service. They shouldn't be looking to pile as much new technology as possible just because they can. The end goal should be to ensure customer satisfaction and to work out the best and most efficient route to ensuring that satisfaction. That is the true message behind the Heidi store – the technology is merely a way to help achieve that goal.

As consumers grow more accustomed to the merger of online and offline shopping, retailers could also benefit from an array of new customer loyalty initiatives. By utilising technologies such as NFC (Near Field Communication) retailers will be able to revolutionise the way they provide discounts and personalised offers. Working with the Retail of Tomorrow project, Heidi has been able to use such technologies to provide customised, location-based, welcome messages directly to shoppers' mobile devices. Through this contact, retailers can look to build a genuine relationship with customers, rather than just spamming them with generic discount deals.

Additionally, in the case of the Heidi store, customers can be linked to their online profiles simply by enabling the Heidi app on their mobile phones. This allows them to 'check in' at one of virtual point of sales devices in order to receive personalised recommendations based on browsing history. In addition to this, staff are also able to view recommendations via portable tablet computers in order to provide far more accurate suggestions and assistance.

Some of these technologies may sound futuristic, but they all exist and are already implemented within the Heidi store. That was what the Retail of Tomorrow project was all about: providing a template for future retailers to adopt and follow in order to prove that the high street still has a place in a digital age.

Thomas Arenz is head of marketing communications at Samsung Semiconductor Europe.

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