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Bringing Digital Experiences to Physical Retail Stores

Retail tech

The events of 2020 completely redefined the concept of the customer experience. Now when consumers venture out to a store, they expect to be rewarded with an experience that justifies the trip.

Digital media plays a pivotal role in creating this experience. To learn how retailers can put this tech to work, power couple Sarah-Jayne and Dean Gratton interviewed experts from Beaver Trison, a specialized retail and hospitality agency that serves companies including ODEON, IKEA, Costa, and Premier Inn. Their conversation explores the ways to deliver highly targeted content that motivates purchases.

Digital Trends in the Store

Dean Gratton: What does Beaver Trison do, and what is your role?

Peter Critchley: Trison Group, which is the Spanish parent company of Beaver Trison, is the No. 1 digital integrator in Europe and is our parent company. We, like they, provide digital platforms and customer experiences for our customers.

I help lead the strategic role, working with other key parts of the group to make sure that what we do is at the forefront of current digital trends and is helping our customers get through very difficult times like this, using digital platforms to service their customers.

Dean: How do you identify digital trends?

Peter: It’s by doing the operational elements of the work that we do. A lot of companies just produce a product to sell it. We are actually delivering solutions on behalf of our customers.

We feel the same operational challenges that they have, and we’re in almost a symbiotic relationship with them. We’re very much part of their team. It enables us to really see where requirements are, what solutions are needed, and what platforms can alleviate some of the challenges.

The Evolution of Digital Signage

Sarah-Jayne Gratton: How do you think the role of digital signage is evolving in these times?

Peter: Over the years, people have evolved it to become much more capable with content and video. But, truth be known, it really needs to evolve significantly now.

There are only really a few players in this space who have the pedigree to use the opportunities that digital surfaces present. I think the evolution of it now is toward much more intelligent digital surfaces or digital signage and using IoT, using machine learning, thinking about how it can be extremely dynamic and contextual.

It’s got to add value. Wherever you are, whether it’s in retail, or cinema, or hospitality, people are looking for experiences. The digital platforms, kiosks, signage, and mobile platforms offer an opportunity to create a really joined-up customer experience.

It’s much less about digital signage these days. Really, we should be talking about the why. Why are we doing what we’re doing? What is the best way of achieving that? Then, how do we do it? That’s the technology play at the end that should be delivering on the why that we’ve got.

Sarah-Jayne: Are we evolving toward that very personalized involvement?

Peter: Making it feel personal is much more about relevancy. It’s not so much about, did you search for washing machines on Google, and now every time you go to any website, all you see are washing machine adverts.

It’s more about, are you furnishing your home? Are you looking for a new kitchen? Is this a space that you’re looking to develop? Let’s think about learning more about people, so that you can make the experience more personal and relevant and not annoying.

We’ve all been in that situation where you’ve seen an advert for something, and it’s like they’ve read your mind and you go, “That’s amazing. I absolutely have to buy this right now.” Every brand is trying to get to that moment with every customer and every consumer that they’re trying to engage with.

I think the journey begins before you go anywhere near a retail store, and the retailer needs to start to think about how they can understand better the customers that are walking through the door and then address them appropriately.

The technology is connecting apps to store devices and to content delivery networks that will cover a broader spectrum of display methods, and it’s linking it to environments and preferences and colors and ensuring that people that are talking to you have an insight.

The New In-Store Experience

Sarah-Jayne: How do you think shopping patterns are changing in the wake of this pandemic?

Peter: I think that the really reassuring thing is that people want to go to shops. We went through a lockdown where we weren’t allowed to go out at all really, apart from our hour of exercise, certainly in the UK. As soon as we were allowed to go to shops, there were queues. I thought that was really great.

But online has gone up. It represents about 30% now, 35% of all shopping, of all retail, and it’s had about a 10% boost since lockdown. But it’s not replaced the retail experience, and experience is the key piece here. It’s much more about experience adding value to that journey that someone’s made to go to a physical space and then making it relevant and making it entertaining. This should be a joyful experience.

We’ve got to try harder in retail, and there’s a demand for it. If you don’t have that product and yet you’re promoting it in the window as part of this current season, there’s not a lot of forgiveness for that.

I think that’s a good thing for retailers, in a way, because they know that the percentage of people who are going to be purchasing is higher. There may be fewer of them, but their efforts are more rewarded for it. So I think the other thing we’re going to start to see a lot more of is the centralization around larger stores. Having lots of smaller stores is probably not going to persist.

Flagship Store vs. Pop-ups

Peter: I think there’ll be much larger experience-led locations. Whether they’re out of town or in city centers, I think both would apply, but there’ll be investment into these bigger—I want to call them multi-flagship stores.

Then pop-ups will be another trend that we’ll start to see a lot more of, where there’ll be focus around high-activity areas or events, and brands will be using digitally enabled pop-ups to engage with people in a similar way they would at these multi-location flagships that they’ll have.

Dean: What do you mean, Peter, by pop-up stores?

Peter: There’s going to be a lot of real estate that isn’t going to be used over the coming 12, 18, 24 months, and I think that there’ll be certain brands that would benefit from using those for brand building for shortish periods of time.

If you’re thinking about winter clothing, and you’re a brand that makes winter clothing, you might well take over a small sub-1,000-square-foot space but put very large LED screens in maybe around the walls. You might invest in floor-based LED as well to create an immersive environment, and you won’t really have a lot of stock there.

You won’t be selling products, per se. It’ll be a brand experience which you can then lead people to. Maybe it’s through interactive devices or contactless engagement through eye tracking or what have you, which then is a walk-away. It’s a brand connection that then leads to a purchase either in-store, through an online purchase, or post-experience when they’ve followed up through the contacts by the brand.

Those can move around. There’s been a bit of that with some of the forward-thinking brands. But I think there’ll be a lot more of it now where you’ll have almost a roadshow, but it’s going pop-up to pop-up. It’s spending a few weeks at a particular location.

Whether it’s in Soho, or North London, or in Manchester, or Paris, or New York, those locations are going to have people with disposable income still, who are looking to engage and are looking to have these brand experiences. That’s the rethink that I think is coming.

Facial Recognition vs. Facial Analytics

Dean: You mentioned eye tracking, and of course, that leads to facial recognition. What are the differences between eye tracking and facial recognition?

Peter: They all tie together and, to be honest with you, you’re saying what everyone thinks, because it is quite confusing. When you’re looking at a camera, you have no idea if it’s a facial recognition camera or a facial analytics camera. The difference between the two is the storage of your personal data, your image, and then tying that to your personal data—name, date of birth, etc., etc.

Facial analytics is where we tend to play. Facial analytics is anonymous because we’re not storing any images at all, though it’s a camera. It’s often referred to as computer vision.

Computer vision is using a camera to show you something, and then the computer analyzes it and turns that into data. It compares you to a data model, your face to a data model, and then it will assign gender, age, emotion, state, and various other things.

These models are pretty accurate these days. Intel OpenVINO is a platform that we use for this technology. It enables a very rich environment for you to understand who, in broad generalized groups, you’re looking at, and also the numbers that you’re looking at.

You can use that data to give you an insight into where people are, what they’re doing, how long they’re looking at something, what attention you get physically with the eyes on the content or the area in store. You can use this to align it with digital campaigns that are being shown, or indeed, you can apply it in an analog world where you might have a wall of shoes, and you could determine which shoes get the most attention from people who are standing in the vicinity.

Dean: How do you build up a model of a consumer’s experiences so you can actually target products more effectively?

Peter: Right. You are storing it and aligning it to a person. There is a person, they’re just not personalized in that process. In this anonymized world of facial analytics or facial detection, you’re not assigning that to an individual, but you are assigning it to a person.

You know that a person, a male, 42 years old, stood in front of this space and looked at four different sets of shoes and dwelled particularly on the Nike and then turned right. That’s an experience that that person had. If they turned right, the chances are that they were going off to this area.

You can then connect the chances of a 42-year-old male, who you’ve just literally measured in the shoe section and three seconds later he falls into the camera detection area for the till. It’s likely that it’s the same person. Those are the kind of processes that you can start to build up. It’s great for brands because they don’t have to think about GDPR. They don’t have to worry about the potential pushback from customers.

There are opportunities to then tie that into a more personalized experience. You can, for example, have a screen that people are looking at and engaging with and present a QR code that would then tie you into an app. The app experience could then link you. Then suddenly you can tie what they were doing and looking at to the actual person. So you can then personalize that experience further, obviously with their permission.

One of the things that this industry, our industry, has to do better is tell people what we’re doing. We have to explain it to people and say, “This is what we’re doing and this is how it works. This is the benefit to you.” Because there is a lot of mistrust of technology. This industry has to work harder at building. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be telling people what we’re doing, because it’s actually for everyone’s benefit.

Measuring the Experience

Sarah-Jayne: I really admire companies such as yours that act for the consumer but actually support brands in a way that allows them to shine.

Going back to Intel, one thing I would like to ask you is that you supported Intel at this year’s ISE in Amsterdam. You created this kind of mock coffee shop. I just want to hear more about that because that’s right up my street.

Peter: It was a demonstration of how you can utilize technology to create a more personal experience within a coffee shop. It was simple in its execution, but the way we did it was engaging. It was a good example of how content is really crucial in this. I mean, we spent a lot of time talking about data and experiences and journeys, but you know what? Content is the thing that really connects people to those experiences.

With Intel, we developed a superhero theme for the coffee shop environment. There’s an interactive kiosk where you would go and order your coffee, place your order, and type in your name. When it was ready, the barista would tap an iPad and he’d see those orders on his iPad, and he’d be then creating those drinks, and tap the name that was on the iPad. Then, there’d be a whole little content show that drove an experience for the customer, which would bring their name up and, depending on the coffee that they’d selected, it would have that character.

We were logging all of the data for that as well, so we were able to feedback to Intel or, let’s say, the coffee shop in this case: the dwell time that people had, which screens they were looking at, which animations worked better, and which ones made people happier. So there was a little data story behind that as a little proof of concept of how it all works.

Sarah-Jayne: I love that idea.

Peter: I think it comes back to a maxim which we have, which is, “Measure, measure, measure.” You’ve got to measure what’s going on, because if you don’t understand the space and the problem, how can you engage with it and fix it?

There’s so much of that needed at the moment with environments that brands are operating in, wherever they may be, that there are opportunities to measure using inexpensive equipment to really understand what people are doing in the spaces.

There’s not been that much of an imperative to do it until now, because of the times. They haven’t been amazing, but they’ve not been terrible, either. Brands have been able to focus on other things. But there is an opportunity at the moment to really kind of get down and dirty with the data of who, where, when, in terms of what people are doing to engage.

Sarah-Jayne: That’s such a great summary of it all, because it’s all about what we do every day that gives us that perfect retail experience.

Peter: The whole retail landscape will be completely different because those people, like my mum, that never really engaged too much with Amazon or really engaged too much with online delivery, suddenly have discovered it’s really not that hard and, actually, it’s pretty good.

So, the people, the businesses, the operators, the brands have recognized that it’s not going to be the same, people have changed, their perceptions of where risk lies has changed, their demands and expectations within retail have changed, and the products that they want to engage with and buy haven’t changed enormously—but the way that they do it has.

There’s loads of opportunity and you’ll see that playing out, I’m sure, through those that survive and those that struggle to make it through the next sort of difficult days that are ahead for retail.

Better Omnichannel Experiences

Peter: There was a big kind of inflection point with iPads and iPhone, obviously, but iPads especially. When the iPad came out, I remember very clearly people saying, “What’s the point of that? It’s just a big phone. Why would you buy one of those? I’ve got an iPhone already.” I heard that over and over and over again. And do you know what? That thing has been so successful.

It’s changed everything. Suddenly, people realized, “This is transformational. This has changed how I connect with content from all the brands and media providers that I’m used to.” And we’ve never looked back since.

The same is true, I think, at the moment, with digital and retail. I think there are opportunities for brands to really connect with the online experience and take it to the offline environment and to really properly engage with that.

We’ve done work with and others like Fujifilm and brought them into a space where their online experiences are now an intrinsic part of the offline spaces that they operate in, and turn them into a truly engaging, connected space that feels very dynamic.

That, I think, is where the digitalization of our lives has taken them significantly forward. That’s going to need to be reflected in, let’s face it, the lagging behind that we’ve seen in a lot of the High Street and the resistance to it. “It’s an expense. It’s a cost.” It’s not, actually. There’s a significant return on investment from it, if you do it the right way. And that’s the crucial bit, right, if you do it the right way.

Better Engagement with IoT

Dean: Are you seeing benefits from IoT technology?

Peter: We’re seeing a trend within retailers to engage with that. Some of them have been using these systems, whether it’s RFID or other technologies for a long time. The customer-facing side of IoT has been a little slower to engage.

So, we’re seeing this year, really, and it is now about this year, trends towards really thinking about connecting U-POS systems and making them drive a broader story through IoT.

Whether that’s going to be stock availability and how that changes the mix of content on digital surfaces. Or whether you’re thinking about how, if a customer is looking at a particular product—and we’re going back to the OpenVINO piece here—maybe that illuminates using DMX-controlled lighting that’s controlled through EdgeX equipment.

All of those sort of very subtle, but important, connections that make you feel better and engage you with the space that you’re in, I think are becoming really practical and usable for retailers. I can’t see a downside to that, really.

Dean: Yes, and seamless and transparent, because ultimately with new technology for the consumer, you shouldn’t know it’s there. It should just be seamless, transparent. You just enjoy the experience.

Peter: The digital retail environment is not about in your face. It goes back to what I was saying about, it feels personal, but it’s not personalized. It’s not trying to address me and say, “Hey, Peter. This is what you’d love. This is great for you.”

What it is doing, though, is in my periphery. It’s showing me things that I’m interested in, but it’s not driving me and saying, “You’ve got to look at this. This is amazing. This is for you.”

It’s this call to the space and the physical that’s very attractive that makes people go to these retail spaces. The way that digital works needs to be seamless, frictionless, not in your face, quite subtle and engaging, but in a non-confrontational way. That’s where you’ll get brand engagement on a level that is meaningful.

Related Content

To learn more about improving customer experience, listen to our podcast on "Retail Tech Chat Episode 3: Digitizing the In-Store Experience".

About the Author

Kenton Williston is an Editorial Consultant to and previously served as the Editor-in-Chief of the publication as well as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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