Comment: Is this a Tom Cruise movie or am I shopping?

The next revolution in retail is already happening very, very unobtrusively in your home and at your local shopping centre.

It's stealthy, silent, and unless you are in the know, it's invisible to the naked eye. A barcode or a poster can trigger a video. A simple gesture or movement can set of the most complex digital events and visuals.

Augmented reality is new type of experience is changing the future of shopping very quietly indeed.

A wealth of hidden, personalised content from the digital world blended together there at the shops, in your home or everywhere. You may have been walking past it with out even noticing at a bus stop, at a concert or even at your local shopping centre.

Last time I wrote about the arrival of Scan & Take and its potentially revolutionary impact on the checkout experience. Since that piece a number of major players such as Apple have announced enabling functionality – some of which, such as Apple Pay, move us closer and faster to that experience. The importance of this trend cannot be understated because it is likely to become common behaviour for us all rather than simply behaviour that a younger generation does that will one day be the norm when people like me are long gone and forgotten. 

When Apple, Amazon and Google provide enablers they are not just adopted by youngest of young people but are aimed at the rest of us. They are designed to be as commonplace as the internet itself. The scan & take revolution will be driven by the grocery businesses. The recent troubles at Tesco and others are just another indicator of the level of pressure to perform through any advantage in the retail space.

The next big change to the retail experience to understand is called augmented reality, and it is truly remarkable.

It's the second major game changer I am writing about in this series. It appears to be the stuff of sci-fi movies but is based on technology and content that we have been using in retail for years. But it's being used in a different way. It is being delivered into the real world.

Augmented reality is your ability as a retailer to link the content that you create and use on your website and in media to the real world experience of me, (the customer) in the high street or at home or everywhere. It's your Facebook page and Google Hangouts and your latest in-store promotions all mixed together.

Additional information about products, promotional offers, contact centre sales or support, and the website or app all as one experience.

Imagine that I have taken home a brochure about a sofa. With a smartphone or tablet app I can now create a view of what that sofa looks like in my room. SCS, the UK furniture retailer, has had an app that allows you to chose a sofa or bed and see how it looks in your room for years.

Ikea has taken this to another level with a whole range of at home augmented experiences where you can take objects from their catalogue and see them anywhere. There's a short movie that Ikea has put on YouTube that gives you a feel for the experience in a couple of minutes.

But that's only one application. Earlier this year I was in Singapore talking to one of the largest shopping centres on Orchard Road, the main shopping district with 2.2 km of shopping, restaurants and entertainment over 800,000 sq m.

They are looking how to blend promotions across the site with augmented reality services such as displaying point and click restaurant queues or your hairdressing appointments confirmed via video when the hairdresser is free.

When this design is implemented shops will be advised when regular customers arrive on site. Store staff will be able greet them via the customers smartphones and arrange convenient times or prepare for specific interests.

One global make-up brand will bring up the personalised colour palate of the individual customer ready for when the customer arrives at the website or in any of their thousands of outlets globally.

A technology retailer is looking at setting up demonstrations that it knows are of interest to customers who have already browsed online. Customers will be invited in-store from a smartphone app.

Magic mirrors are now becoming commonplace but Ray Ban, a keystone brand in sunglasses, has now taken this one step further with a web-based magic mirror app where you can try different styles from the comfort of your own home. The application allows you to have a look at a large range.

However magic mirrors are now being blended with other technologies such as Skype and Google Hangouts. I can now look at the latest shirt and share the experience with my children virtually while they complain about my taste from home. It's so much cheaper than when they used to come shopping with me. I don't have to bribe them to behave in technology shops or spend time in young girls fashion shops looking awkward in the way the fathers of teenage daughters always do when shopping with daughters.

It doesn't stop there. Topman, part of the Arcadia Group, is adding a personal shopping service using Google Hangouts. It's being rolled out first here in the UK as a trial with an impossibly cool looking group of personal shoppers to encourage you to create your own unique style within the brand.

Think about that for a second. It is important in strategic terms. They are not investing in some large IT or software project to develop a proprietary USP or differentiation. They are blending consumer technology into their business model to achieve a new customer experience. For many this is still counter-intuitive but most new channels over the last few years have been driven by consumer choice. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest have become key marketing channels because consumers like them. Customer power is now defining how retailers use technology.

So what’s the practical point from how these trends are coming together?

There is an obvious game changer when all these trends start to merge together. It comes somewhat surprisingly from the call centre world. The more your digital world extends into the real world the more you can deliver experience to customers remotely. This is called augmented presence and the thing about this type of presence is that it is the basis for call centre operations. Put simply – your shop staff can offer a retail experience digitally and remotely in store or anywhere your customer is. Using everything from magic mirrors to 3D projection. What makes this new stuff so powerful is that there is also a revolution in call centre technology as well, and when all these revolutions combine the have a much larger impact than they would on their own.

It really is about the sum of the parts, which makes your store staff a new type of call centre agent, supported by a new type of call centre. That means that you can house some of your retail staff remotely and they can operate across many stores and locations with little to inhibit the experience. It changes the game because call centres are significantly cheaper to operate than most traditional staff deployment strategies.

Imagine that your men's fashion expert or kitchen designer could service 20 or 30 meetings a day across 100 locations. So you can reduce the time that customers wait for staff because your staff could meet customers virtually in any one of your stores.

One major UK bank has already seen this as a way to reduce queues and to maintain services while reducing the number of staff in a branch. With bank branch visits reduced by half over the last two years, change is inevitable.

When the same approach is applied to white goods and fashion it changes the cost model of retail outlets. Each one of these augmented reality innovations has an impact and there are hundreds of new commercially viable ones arriving weekly. Last week I heard that a major retail chain is looking at the fabulous Double Presence Robots, as a possible way to increase their on-the-floor availability of staff.

All this may seem like science fiction but in fact it is just applying new techniques to existing problems! Ten years ago the idea that I might talk global via my tablet or laptop seemed strange but Skype has completely changed international telephony forever. The result is much cheaper and a better experience… and even in the digital age that is still good business.

Customer Experience Foundation founder Morris Pentel is a customer experience & contact strategy designer, and works on value models and organisational structures to help businesses around the world. Over the coming months, he will be writing a future-gazing series for Essential Retail.

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