The latest American product to be made overseas is likely to be the shopping trip.
Staff-free stores, delivery robots and body scanners are among the innovations shoppers enjoy in Asia and Europe, and retail brands here in the states are likely monitoring them for success. For this, U.S. shoppers should be encouraged. These far-off ventures could mean that by this time next year a variety of futuristic features, such as the ability to virtually try on clothes from home, will make for a faster, better-tailored and more entertaining shopping trip.
But would it be as effective? Let’s take a peek to find out.
5 Big Innovations, No Matter How You Say It
The most promising characteristic of the leading innovations in Asia and Europe is they can cross borders seamlessly. There’s little cultural designation that would make any of them hard to accept for consumers in the U.S.
1) Can AI help you? In China, staff-free stores including EasyGo, BingoBox and Alibaba’s Tao Café rely on apps, sensors and mobile payment services so busy urban shoppers can grab and pay for items without stopping at a cashier. In the U.S., Amazon opened its cashier-less Amazon Go store in Seattle in January, behind China’s efforts.
2) Do these pants make my avatar look fat? The world’s first virtual store, in which 3-D avatars are created from scans of shoppers’ bodies, opened in South Korea in 2007. At the store, operated by the retailer Shinsegae, customers try clothing on their personalized avatars by scanning the RFID tags of items they like. The information is then encrypted and stored on a smart card.
3) Thank you for the grub-o, Mr. Roboto. In the United Kingdom, the company GoInStore enables shoppers to visit actual stores virtually by streaming live from the viewpoint of an in-store salesperson. Supermarket chain Tesco, meantime, is testing grocery delivery via self-driving robots and also introduced scanners shoppers can use at home to capture barcodes and build shopping lists.
4) Are you eyeing our buns? At the 2016 Retail Asia Expo, the global experiential marketing company TRO demoed eye-tracking technology that enables shoppers to choose products with their eyes. It works by fixing on where a shopper looks on a digital screen and then selects those items. Long used to learn about the shopper’s path to purchase, eye-tracking technology is now becoming interactive. At the expo, visitors built hamburgers by choosing buns and cheeses with their eyes, but the technology can be applied to shop windows, where retailers can offer up information about gazed-upon items.
5) You look like a tall glass of soda. In Japan and Singapore, the company SmartRetail produces touchscreen vending machines that can be managed remotely. Product selection, sales transactions, inventory and marketing videos can be adjusted from anywhere. Clients include Procter & Gamble, Calvin Klein and 7-Eleven. Also in Japan, vending machines take photos of shoppers and recommend drink choices based on gender and age.
Learning, from Alibaba to Tesco
The influence these technologies have on the U.S. shopping trip could be dramatic. In China, for example, retail giants Alibaba and JD.com are wooing brands with innovations that range from location-based inventory management to facial recognition payment systems.
In the United Kingdom and India, Tesco is developing retail innovations in its Tesco Labs, which are dedicated to developing technologies that simplify the trip for shoppers. In addition to delivery robots, it introduced an app that helps shoppers select a wine, based on their planned meal, by interacting with the actual shelf through LED lights.
These projects are helping escalate retail sales in their respective nations. In China, consumers were projected to spend $1 trillion online in 2017 — representing roughly half of the global e-commerce market, according to TechinAsia.com. In the U.K., grocery sales rose 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, despite price inflation that threatened to keep shoppers away. Sales at Tesco rose 3.1 percent in the quarter, greater than its three largest competitors.
Why Shoppers Should Be Happy
Many of these technologies are taking form in the U.S. by domestic companies. Amazon recently filed a patent for a mirror that enables shoppers to virtually try on clothes they see on its website. And in California a company called Robomart has developed self-driving mini stores and is reportedly talking with grocers and wholesalers.
Of greater long-term significance is that these innovations are also entering the U.S. beyond the retail aisles. JD.com operates its JD-X robotics research center in Silicon Valley. Alibaba is investing $15 billion in a global research and development initiative in seven global cities, including Bellevue, Washington, and San Mateo, California.
Tesco’s U.S. tie involves Google Home, which takes grocery orders through Tesco’s IFTTT.com program (If This Then That). The program, which automates and interprets customer preferences, can suggest product substitutions and send notices if prices change. It also includes a date-triggering feature that alerts shoppers when they may be running out of detergent or need to order a birthday cake. U.S. retailers, including Walmart and Target, are also partnering with Google Express, Google Home’s shopping service.
It’s feasible to expect an importation of these innovations, as long as shoppers have an appetite for them. All indications are that they do. The real question is whether U.S. retailers can move fast enough, time zones be damned.