Touring the Nebraska Furniture Mart in Dallas is an engaging experience. Not just because of the mammoth size of the store and the seemingly endless inventory of furniture, electronics, home appliances and housewares, but by the ease of walking the aisles created by the interactive kiosks that visually simplify the rows of product displays
The kiosks are not islands of data awaiting the shopper's discovery. Instead, they are part of an omnichannel data stream integrating mobile, online and other POS touch points.
My tour of NFM, which kicked off this year's Interactive Customer Experience Summit in Dallas, was just one of the many ways we learned about how interactive retail technology not only empowers consumers in their shopping experience, but gives them a more personal bond to the products they choose and to the environments in which they shop.
The summit, which brought together about 250 retailers and vendors to discuss how technology is merging what were once separate aspects of the retail shopping paradigm, included a variety of educational sessions and hands-on examples.
Pepper, the humanoid robot from SoftBank Robotics in the summit's exhibit area, and the augmented and virtual reality presented by Float Hybrid Entertainment, were enticing in their own unique ways. One virtual reality experience places you in a rocket ship traveling the solar system. Another gives you the sense of moving up and down in a tractor combine cabin surrounded by the sounds and smells of a farm field.
Empowering the consumer
Empowering the consumer is now part of every brand manager's playbook, but one thing summit attendees learned was that the journey to this precipice of shopping utopia has only started. The learning process demands a new level of information sharing among all stakeholders in the retail shopping experience.
Kiosks, an expanding touchpoint on the retail landscape, cannot be deployed in a vacuum. They are part of a retail organization's omnichannel architecture. They must serve the consumer in a way that supports the retailer's goals.
In one session, Anna Duffy, marketing strategist and brand culture ambassador at Taziki's Mediterranean Café, said it was important not to have a "siloed" approach to different sales channels — in-store, online and mobile. The silos referred to the different departments within a company — sales, marketing, accounting, inventory, etc. — that once worked apart from one another.
Digitization of retail information is breaking apart departmental barriers, but it is also giving relevance to physical stores at a time when they are generally in decline.
Capital One, for example, has opened cafés where consumers can get not only financial information, but enjoy refreshments, recharge their phones and use free Wi-Fi. Andrew Winninger, the company's business development manager, said during one session that the bank measures how many consumers they engage in cafes as opposed to how many accounts they open. He said removing posters on the walls — typical in banks — was the most successful aspect in making consumers want to visit the cafes.
While it might be too soon to call the Capital One café a success, changes that require a collective effort among company departments are needed to engage today's "connected" consumer.
Let's get physical
The importance of physical stores was cited by a panel of millennials during the summit's final and best attended session. The technology-savvy crew said they still enjoy shopping in physical stores.
In fact, many in the audience were surprised to learn that 82 percent of millennials said it's important to have physical stores, compared to 69 percent of GenXers and 65 percent off baby boomers.
Millennials are doing their research online, but for higher ticket items, they want to touch the merchandise before they buy. Once they're in the store, they don't want to open their smart phone browsers or download apps since they don't want to have their actions monitored. The physical store, paradoxically, gives them privacy.
Retail strategists have a long road ahead in trying to understand how to integrate physical stores with digital touchpoints. The younger generation – tomorrow's generation – wants good value for its money, easy payment methods, personal privacy and a certain amount of social engagement.
A tall order for retail stakeholders, no doubt, as the journey has only begun.