The future of shopping: What happens when walls start talking

May 16, 2010 16 Comments


If only these walls could talk, the saying goes. In the case of the N building near Tachikawa station in Japan they do. In fact the whole building facade has been transformed into a real time dialogue between smart phones and what’s going on inside the store. All you do is hold your phone up to the walls and the constantly changing QR codes tell you what’s going on inside. You can also browse shop information, make reservations and download coupons.

As unconventional as this seems now,  it could be the beginning a new wave of dialogue between people and their environment (let’s call it e-dialogue for e-commerce). This is a big deal for business owners and marketers. We have already seen the shift from static billboards to digital billboards in cities like LA, and Japanese designers are hoping to release billboards that actually watch consumers shop and adjust the advertising to match their demographics in real time (very Minority Report). What’s more, Google will soon be introducing real time adverts mapped into real world posters viewed within Google Streetview. (For more on the latest digital billboards check out this post by Jeremiah Owyang.)

Such QR code wallscapes are the next iteration of an increasingly sophisticated ongoing dialogue emerging between customers, stores and products. Marry this with the fact that more stores are accepting virtual currencies in exchange for real products (South Korea – yes, China – no) and mobile payments (see Starbucks) and the future of retail looks very different from today.

So just for fun, let’s imagine what this future might look like:

Imagine cities in which almost every retail wall surface is engaged in tailor-made, real time discussion with the customers walking nearby.

Imagine customers instinctively checking in throughout their day to earn points that can be traded for real world products or to receive coupons/offers specific to where they are. (For more on digital coupons see Stowe Boyd here.)

Imagine cities populated by geo-tagged digital information that reveals floating, real-time augmented reality advertisements viewed through smart phones? (There’s an overview of recent AR applications here.)

Imagine billboards that watch you shop and make targeted suggestions based on your age, location and  past buying habits.

Scary stuff perhaps but this could change retail marketing in several ways:

Stores will effectively be turned inside out as dialogue and personalized interaction with customers begins outside the store (unlike current broad-based billboard advertising).

Shop floor space will essentially be expanded to inhabit the air around a stores with the sale beginning at street level and the store inside closing the deal.

Traditional demarcations of how stores own retail or advertising space will have to be rethought much like airspace.

As location, category or brand specific digital languaging develops, marketers will have to consider how to attract customers to the language of their brand community and then how to hold on to them.

Some or all of this may come true. Or maybe marketers won’t put money into ads that require you to view them through your phone? One thing is sure. Marketers will have to tread very carefully so they don’t overwhelm a customer’s every waking moment with an appeal to their virtual pocketbook. To that end marketers stay up to speed with the latest technology but always consider the customer experience first. Here are three useful rules to remember:

Technology is not an end in itself.

Emotion is the currency we trade.

Serve the customer before the product.

Does this shopping future scare you? Do you think it’s realistic? What else do you see happening?

  • Jodi Henderson

    Hi Simon – Some very interesting stuff here. One thing that jumps out at me is your comment “Marketers will have to tread very carefully so they don’t overwhelm a customer’s every waking moment with an appeal to their virtual pocketbook.” As a consumer, this would be one of my biggest fears. I say fear here because I love technology and like the idea, to some degree, of using it to enhance my shopping experiences. But I *hate* being sold to and that's what some of this technology sounds like it could very easily enable. Only time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, I'll just keep doing one of my favorite things – shopping online. It's kinda hard to beat buying shoes at 10pm on a Sunday night. :)

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Thanks, Jodi, and your fear is real. If marketers get too targeted and aggressive it could feel very big brother so it's a hard balance to strike. But marketers have to be up to speed with technology in the meantime. Let's hope we all find a healthy balance sooner than later. Best, simon

  • dave

    What you've envisioned for the “future” can be implemented today. Really, the technology is already there and it is affordable. But, it's a matter of Brands/Agencies moving dollars away from their over-bloated broadcast and online budgets to these new spaces, where they can directly engage with Users in a more intimate mobile experience.

    Will they do that?

    Doubtful in my opinion.

    Agencies are too deeply invested in their current toolkits (from Flash to print to video to one-off mobile Apps) to recognize that (e)dialogue could be a more effective form of communication. They'll spend money on Apps to reach small percentages of Users because they look cool and have lots of wow-factor in them. They'll spend money making pretty billboards or ads that are instantly forgotten and never connect directly to a User. Let's face it, Agencies don't put the End User in mind first. They put “keep the client happy” and “win awards” way ahead of the End User experience and value to the End User.

    Unfortunately, the future may be more of the same-old, same-old, more like BLADERUNNER (one directional pretty push marketing), than eDialogue with personalized interaction as you've described it…too bad…'cause this looks pretty “wow” to me.

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Thanks, Dave. I suspect you're right but hope it's not true. The margins in advertising are so slim now after the business lost their media buying power that they would be wise to expand into the social space and not lose that revenue too. We all saw what happened with the digital revolution and the emergence of new and powerful players. I'm hoping the ad industry will see how their existing skills are so relevant today. You're right these tools are affordable now.Ii just hope in the future they'll be employed by ad agencies everywhere. Thanks again, simon

  • Jimmy Tech Daily

    That is cool, I think Malaysia in this 15 years furture also don't have this technology…

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Hopefully not so long. All the best. Simon

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  • swahiliat5th

    Greetings Simon. Scary yes. Realistic yes. Today you walk into some shopping centers and cameras track how you interact with the merchandise; they then place the merchandise in a position to get maximum reaction from the customer. What you describe seems the next logical step in the interface of the shopper and technology in pushing for the purchase by retail stores. By being able to see and categorize the person then customize the ad to the individual seems like the ultimate advertisers dream. This to me is the future of advertising. I might not like it, because it reminds me too much of George Orwell's 1984 with Big Brother always watching you; but it is the future.
    Now lets hope its only used for advertising and not by paranoid governments.

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Thanks for the great feedback. It is scary and forces us to live our lives with transparency as so many eyes are on us. This is such a huge shift with enormous implications – good and bad – and I think the process of transition has only just began. But I agree, we can't go back. Let's hope advertisers act responsibly. Thanks, Simon

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