Mobile Marketing and a Streamlined Consumer Experience Dominate PSFK’s “Future of Retail” Conference

Forward-thinking retailers have been trudging their way toward the omnichannel retailing ideal for years—experimenting, trial-and-error-style, with programs that meld their online and brick-and-mortar entities into a cohesively branded product that allows shoppers to purchase what they want through their shopping method of choice.

Brand consulting firm PSFK specializes in tracking retail’s forward motion by amassing intel for big companies on everything from sweeping trends (such as showrooming) to on-the-verge apps and in-store gadgetry.

The New York City–based think tank—which is perhaps most famous for its engaging website that tracks consumer and retail trends—corralled a crew of pioneering retailers culled from its fourth annual Future of Retail report for “PSFK San Francisco: The Future of Retail,” a half-day conference in San Francisco on Nov. 21.

As expected, the subjects of optimizing the mobile shopping experience and unifying branding across retail channels were front-and-center in many of the brief presentations.

In his greeting, Scott Lachut, PSFK’s head of research and strategy, commented that “the purchase path has changed” because “omnichannel retailing has disrupted the way people shop.” The bottom line: “Shoppers don’t care what the actual channel is they’re using, but they do expect a similar experience across all channels.”

PSFK founder Piers Fawkes and head of research and strategy Scott Lachut in San Francisco

Lachut went on to stress that “trading data for better shopping experiences” is retailing’s new modus operandi.We’re starting to see systems that are allowing consumers to freely trade their data in order to get something of value in return from a retailer,” such as better customer service and discounts.

By way of example, Lachut mentioned the Swirl app, which offers relevant discounts in exchange for tracking a consumer’s movements in-store. For example, if a person is looking at a pair of boots for 10 minutes, the Swirl app can present them with a 25-percent-off coupon for footwear. The benefit to retailers: valuable data—namely, what people are looking at in your store, and for how long.

The lineup of speakers at the conference, who presented their own retail-related products, riffed on many of the same themes. Some highlights and takeaways:

Bradley Voytek, data evangelist at on-demand car service Uber
Voytek gave a demonstration of how the brain filters information when bombarded with stimuli as a metaphor for how imperative it is for retailers to cut through the “noise”—particularly in the digital sphere. “We are very good at extracting data from noisy stimulation,” he says. For Uber, knowledge about where people want to be picked up and at what time of day—using real-time analytics via incredible digital color-coded maps that chart every call and pickup in a city—has allowed the company to whittle down its wait times from 15 to two minutes.

Tim Voegele-Downing, global creative director for Avery Dennison, the world’s largest supplier of RFID solutions in retail
“The challenge is to ensure that brand experience isn’t diverging on different avenues,” said Voegele-Downing, who stressed that rock-solid inventory control is the key to closing that loop. “You need to have really tight control of what you have on your supply chains and in your distribution centers.” RFID-chipped price tags, according to Voegele-Downing and the PSFK team, are the best way to streamline inventory and distribution. “Currently only about 50 percent of inventory in retail is accurately tracked,” said Voegele-Downing. “This must be solved before you make anything else happen. You need to have that as a foundation to accept all the fantastic apps and things people are building.”

Chris Bennett, CEO and cofounder of Soldsie, an app that allows consumers to sell products through their comments on their Facebook page
Bennett and his company are dispelling the myth that sales aren’t made of Facebook by embedding the purchase “within the fabric of the social network,” he said. “What’s really important about the technology we’ve built is…leaving that footprint on Facebook and allowing friends to see the brand and the product.” Many small brands Bennett works with consider the social network “as the place to sell first; some don’t even have e-commerce websites.” A surreal shift, indeed.

Laura Jones, product marketing manager for Google Shopping
Jones walked the audience through a live demonstration of Google Hangouts, which is a brand new shopping initiative from the tech giant. It allows users/consumers to connect in real time with experts. Here’s how it works: You make an appointment with an expert—a private chef, yoga instructor, stylist, etc.—then log on at the arranged time and interact with them as you would over Skype. Some Hangouts are free; others cost about $1 per minute. Jones connected live with a makeup artist from Sephora, who taught her how to create perfect cat-eye liner. “This is one of our first forays into playing with ideas [that use] user-driven innovation,” she said. The platform could absolutely work for jewelers: Think on-demand jewelry styling, beading seminars, and high-touch remote sales.

Carrie Whitehead, product strategy and user experience manager at Zappos Labs
Whitehead, who works in’s experimental wing, Zappos Labs, told the crowd that the average consumer “typically goes to more than 10 information sources” when shopping for an item.  In an attempt to forge closer ties with social media, the retailer recently brought Tweets onto product pages so users could Tweet just below products. The company is also fine-tuning its distribution. In addition to offering 24-7 customer service online and on the phone, “we can geo-route calls for more localized assistance” and handle customer service Tweets. “We essentially respond to any mention of Zappos,” said Whitehead. “We [look] at every touch-point as an opportunity to help.”

Brian Williamson, senior brand partner at Foursquare
Location, location, location was the subject of Williamson’s brief seminar. Not surprising, considering the Foursquare mobile app relies on precise geolocation to push business recommendations to its users. “We not only know where you’re standing, but we know all the great cookie places surrounding you,” said Williamson. “We know your taste because you’re checking in all the time. You know that blue dot on your [phone] that when you saw the first time creeped you out? Now you’re like, ‘Where the hell is that blue dot?’” Next up for the brand: Locating where people are regardless of whether they check in or not (this evoked a collective rumble of unease in the audience). He reminded the crowd of the scene in Minority Report where the mannequin in The Gap does an eye scan of Tom Cruise and recommends products based on past purchases. “It’s getting close to that,” said Williamson. “This is the first step.”

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