The Future of Shopping: Talking Shelves! No Check-Out Lines! Virtual Reality!

Plus: your cell phone as your multi-tool shopping companion

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Meeting the customer's needs is arguably the first rule of running a successful retail business, and with the adoption of today's smartphones and various mobile technologies, retailers have an opportunity to serve their customers like never before. However, instead of embracing their digital destiny, many well-known stores are instead losing customers to tech-savvy online retailers such as Often, in-store shoppers aren't even waiting until they get home to go online and shop elsewhere--they're doing it from their cell phones, right there in the store.

A recent study published by the consumer electronics and shopping Web site Retrevo found that 43 percent of smartphone-toting shoppers have downloaded a retailer's app but that only 14 percent of these shoppers have actually used it to help purchase an item. If you are a retailer, you have to ask yourself, what's the point of having an app if 86 percent of the installed base has never used it?

The problem is that most retailer apps don't actually do anything, or at least not enough. And that's a shame because there are new technologies that are available now--or will be soon--that have the potential to transform the humdrum shopping experience into something delightful and engaging. Here's a preview of your shopping future.

1. Virtual Reality Shopping

Imagine you are going to a furniture store to shop for a couch. Before you leave the house, you use your cell phone to take a picture of the space in your living room where the couch will go. That picture is then saved to an app that knows the inventory of the store where you'll be shopping. Once you reach the store and have found a couch with just the right shape, fabric, and feel, simply swipe your phone over a sensor and an image of the couch will automatically be uploaded to the picture you took of your living room--this time with your chosen couch superimposed in its designated space.

The same technology could help you previsualize other things as well, including a new suit, the exterior of your house in a different shade of paint, the way a Japanese maple might look in your front yard, how your living room would look with a new carpet, and more.

2. Your Smartphone as Shopping Buddy

OK, you are now walking into the store armed with a mobile device that is loaded with the retailer's app. By "checking in" as you walk through the door, you automatically earn reward points that are stored on your phone and can be used later to buy merchandise. Meanwhile, the app is crunching through the latest web-wide trends, reviews, buzz, stories and specs available - and guiding you to products that are the best fit for you.

Your app also takes your social preferences into account. It knows what your friends like and what they have purchased, which could come in handy if you are looking for a pair of shoes just like the ones your friend has. The app keeps track of the music you like, the activities you enjoy, the brands you "follow" and the type of overall person you are. It'll know not to guide you to that navy cashmere sweater if ripped denim is more your style. And no need to keep track of coupons. When you check out, reward points and coupons will automatically be applied to your purchase.

3. Shelf Tags That Talk Back

The lowly shelf tag is getting a major makeover. A few retailers have already begun embedding near field communication (NFC) chips, quick response (QR) codes, or other interactive enabling technologies. Now, with technologies such as smart lamps developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and Intel, users will be able to access a trove of relevant information about a product, without even needing a mobile device. Smart-lamp technology senses when a user has picked up a product from a shelf and can project images and interactive video onto the shelf (where a normal, paper tag once was). There are lots of ways retailers could use this technology. If a shopper has used a retailer's app to search for, say, the top Nikon point-and-shoot cameras under $400, the app could, in theory, talk to the store's smart lamp and project a green circle around each Nikon camera that meets the shopper's needs. This projection technology could also be used to guide shoppers through the store to specific items or departments.

4. No More Checkout Lines

With technologies such as Google Wallet, customers can pay for products without having to scrounge for a credit card, cash, or check. Just swipe your phone over a payment sensor and voilĂ , you've paid for the items you want to purchase. Standing in line may also be a thing of the past. Eventually, retailers could enable technologies that allow customers to gather the products they want and pay for everything with a single swipe of a mobile device from anywhere in the store and exit without ever queuing up.

Today's customers are ready for innovations that will make shopping easier, perhaps even fun. It's just a question of which retailers get out in front of the technology first and start serving up a new, better experience.