In a 1963 episode of The Jetsons, Jane Jetson has been invited to the theatre. To choose her outfit for the evening, Jane enlists the help of her daughter, Judy, and a futuristic projector. From the comfort of the family living room, the projector is able to enter "dress selector mode," which maps outfit suggestions onto Jane's figure in real-time to give her a glimpse into a potential looks for her special night.
While deciding what to wear today isn't quite as sophisticated as Jane's dress selector (or even Cher Horowitz's computerized closet in the 1995 film Clueless) this year saw a number of companies experimenting with new technologies that elevate and enhance the shopping experience both online and offline. From magic mirrors that make product recommendations to grocery stores where there's never any lineup because there's no checkout, the industry is toying with the idea of the enchanted.
Whether it's trying on an accessory using augmented reality, getting style advice via a bot, or viewing a designer collection on the runway via VR, we're moving towards a future of seamless connected experiences that dissolve the distinction between bricks and clicks.
Stores Behaving More like Websites
Earlier this month, Amazon made noise with its introduction of Amazon Go, a new kind of store with no lines and no checkout. Customers simply use an app to enter, grab what they want, and just walk out. The store uses a combination of machine learning, computer vision, and artificial intelligence to keep track of what you pick up and what you put back in a virtual cart. When you leave the store, Amazon charges your account and sends you a receipt. The first Amazon Go store is set to open in Seattle in early January 2017, and it seems like a dream for anyone who begrudges checkout lines.
While the "just walk out" concept may not work for every retailer, Amazon Go is evidence that stores are behaving more like websites. As our lives become increasingly hallmarked by digital touchpoints, we're beginning to demand more efficient and personalized buying processes that makes use of modern technology whether that's smartphone-based like this or using ID wristbands at theme parks and festivals.
Amazon isn't alone, either. Earlier this season, designer Rebecca Minkoff partnered with QueueHop to offer a self-checkout in her Soho store in New York. The technology allows shoppers to check out via an iPad. Items in the store are tagged with RFID tags, which allows the iPad to recognize products and unlock them once they're paid for.
While we can lament over the loss of humanity (and jobs), we need to remember that not every customer will want to shop this way: For some, getting in and out of a store as quickly as possible with minimal friction is the goal; For others, the experience of a mall or department store is more about the human interaction and social experience that has surrounded shopping for decades. But as more websites offer speedy online delivery and even same-day shipping, retailers are stepping up their game to offer unique and even magical in-store experiences.
Websites Behaving More Like Stores
Up until this point, online shopping has been modelled after its real-world counterpart. The digital shopping cart is the most pointed evidence that e-com takes its lead from the real world experience. We browse through merchandise, examine it in detail, make selections and then cash out. This year saw a number of online retailers borrow more cues from in-store by integrating hallmarks of the brick-and-mortar experience.
This year, a number of fashion brands including Frank + Oak, Burberry, and Nordstrom began experimenting with chatbots. Chatbots are artificially intelligent programs that can engage in limited but scalable conversations on familiar platforms like Facebook and Kik messenger. This fall in New York, in tandem with their runway show and the rollout of their fall collection, Tommy Hilfiger unveiled TMY.GRL, a bot that can help users navigate the brand's new collection through a series of automated messages. The aim is to delight every customer with a personalized, concierge-style experience.
Similarly, Sephora's Reservation Assistant bot aims to make every customer feel like they have a personal beauty assistant by helping schedule makeover appointments. American Eagle's bot promises to help you find the perfect gift for the holiday season, while Nordstrom's chatbot helps you navigate the department store's vast offerings.
The year in fashion tech
While consumer-facing AI applications are currently limited to the messenger space, it won't be long before they're used in other areas of retail as well. With increasingly clever AI assistants making a play for our ear via the latest hearables, text could soon translate to voice conversations which could offer fashion advice both online and in store. When combined with beacons, machine learning, and augmented reality, the shopping experiences of the future are posed to connect to our eyes and ears as well as the tech we're wearing or holding.
2017 promises to be a big year for VR, and we can't wait to see what that means for the future of how we'll shop. We're not the only ones keen on the potential of this space: Goldman Sachs estimated the market for virtual- and augmented-reality retail would be worth $1.6 billion by 2025. Retailers are already beginning to experiment with the potentials of virtual reality to connect with consumers in new and exciting ways.
In May of this year, eBay Australia launched "the first Virtual Reality Department Store" in collaboration with Myer, the country's largest mid-market department store chain.
Using eBay Shopticals (essentially, Cardboard headsets) users navigate and sort through floating items using their eyes. The Shopticals use search-by-sight technology that allows you to select items by holding your gaze.
Later on in November, just ahead of "Single's Day" (a Chinese festival where people literally buy themselves presents for being single) e-commerce giant Alibaba introduced Buy+, a virtual reality universe where you can peruse familiar shopping destinations like Macy's and Target.
Strap on a headset and instantly you'll be able to wander through empty malls, gaze at items of interest, and nod your head "yes" to make a purchase.
If Alibaba's Buy+ platform seems less like magic and more like an eerie Neverland right now, that's because it's early days. VR retail experiments are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's in store (pun intended) for the future of retail tech.
For many smartphone users, Snapchat filters were their first encounter with the magic of augmented reality, but for years retailers have been tapping into AR's potential to better connect consumers to their products.
Sephora recently launched Virtual Artist, an app that lets users try on any shade of lipstick from the beauty retailer in real-time on their live video. The brand teamed up with Toronto-based facial recognition company ModiFace to bring the concept to life.
The designer known for her magical and fantastical illustrations has teamed up with the London College of Fashion's Innovation Agency and interactive platform Meshmerize to create Scarfi.
It's an interactive app that enables customers to use their mobile phone as a virtual try-on experience. Users are able to take a Scarfi selfie with the product to share with friends as well as make purchases directly from the app.
While for the most part AR has been limited to mobile experiences (save for some early, glitchy examples of augmented reality mirrors) in the future it will help us better visualize all of our purchases and how they'll fit into our lives, not unlike Jane Jetson's "dress selector" from the future.
Getting past gimmicks
If retailers are going to succeed in the virtual shopping environments of the future, they're going to have to get past the gimmicks and move towards something more magical.
This year saw a number of experiments with machine learning, computer vision, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented realities. We also saw a clear path indicating where we're headed with the future of shopping. The retail experience of the future should be less about carving a quick path to consumer's wallets and more about adding value and creating magic.