OK, so retailers have got face scanning technology, and the self-service checkout, what next? Zooming right to the top of the list of stuff we didn’t know we wanted – but we soon won’t be able to live without – is what the boffins call the ‘Internet of Things’.
The idea is that inanimate objects – like fridges, boilers, kettles – are connected to virtual networks and can communicate with each other and their owners. The concept isn’t that new, and it has been possible for security cameras, heating systems and the like to be activated and monitored remotely for some time. Once upon a time the ultimate application predicted by scientists was the ability for fridges to sense they were running low on some essential commodity and simply add it to your shopping list, or order it themselves online. When this was first mooted I had nightmarish visions of fridges developing a craving for cheese and creating a world shortage by clubbing together and buying massive quantities. But I digress!
It’s not cheese consuming fridges that are going to turn retail on its head, it’s the latest point of sale technologies! Some say they will be more revolutionary than the introduction of online shopping, or credit and debit cards for purchasing, and that they have the potential to be totally transformative. futurologists predict that one day soon a woman will be able to walk into a store, grab what she wants and simply leave. No need for the checkout, nothing! Today we call them shoplifters, but tomorrow ‘grab and go’ may become legitimate thanks to the ‘Internet of Things’! It may seem extreme, but IoT presages dramatic change in the customer experience.
How will it work? A population of sensor technologies placed strategically within stores, will allow retailers to recognize customers when they walk in the door through their smart devices or other means. Stores will have payment cards on file; customers will be billed when they leave the store with the merchandise, bypassing the checkout.
Store-side, sensors can be placed on shelves to indicate when stock is low and trigger replenishment. Meanwhile intelligent product displays that detect who is around them will deliver customized content via video screens and booths. Video cameras will gather analytic data on store traffic or as part of RFID systems to speed up checkout queues, or even total up the content of your shopping trolley as you wait.
So far, so good, but why? One reason is that with the rise of online shopping, retailers have some self-inflicted problems to solve. Like, how to iron out clashes between their in-store and online offerings, how to look consistent across all platforms, and how to give added value and variety to an arid environment. OK, there is some disconnect between what consumers find online and what they get when they walk into the store, and the march of the mundane and the ubiquitous gathers pace. But, aren’t the futurologists proposing to use a technological sledge-hammer to crack a very small nut?
Just because something is technically possible, must we do it? Couldn’t we put all this technology to better use? These and other questions make me a little uneasy. What about security? Would we be asking customers to sacrifice their anonymity just to conform to the needs of machines, or adapt their behaviour to accommodate technology? Surely that’s the wrong way around! Will these developments inevitably lead to less employment, fewer people providing service, security, and human contact? Would the disconnected find themselves disenfranchised; would the connected have their data protected? And on the most banal level, how would a store detective separate the legitimate customer from the shop lifter in a shop where you just pocket the goods and leave?
It’s a seductive idea, but isn’t this yet another example of inventing a complex answer to a non-existent ‘problem’ of our own making, and wouldn’t it just be simpler to employ more people? They at least are a resource that is in endless and ever- increasing supply!