In the 2 decades I have spent in retail, I have seen it evolve tremendously. But it’s the changes that have taken place over the past 5 years that have particularly caught my attention.

Retail is no longer a place where people buy products. It is fast becoming a space they visit for memorable experiences that have them coming back for more. These are not the run-of-the-mill customer experiences that just about meets their expectation. No, these are game-changing, differentiating experiences that far surpass their expectations and that are made possible by new technology in retail.

Today, we are lucky to be standing on the cutting-edge in retail with technology that can completely transform retail into an experiential space that does much more than facilitate shopping. The technology that’s making its way to store-fronts empowers retailers to create an intuitive, immersive and integrated experience, right from the moment customers set foot in the store, till they leave.

And if this experience motivates purchases, then, well, you have truly tapped into the potential that new technology brings. While a number of these technologies can be leveraged in retail, I have noticed a few showing remarkable potential to truly help retailers distinguish their store from others on the same block. Here are some of the revolutionary retail tech trends to watch out for:

Trend Alert #1: Augmented Reality (AR)

AR has great scope in retail. One of my first significant encounters with what it could do for brands was in Ikea’s video of its AR catalogue. If you haven’t seen it, can check it now. It’s a very refreshing perspective on how customers could envision their homes with new furniture, without actually purchasing it. Now, how can it be used inside stores?

IKEA AR catalogue


Today, brands like Charlotte Tilbury have started experimenting with AR-enabled mirrors, also called ‘magic mirrors’ that allow shoppers to take a picture of themselves. It uses the photograph as an avatar on which clothes and make up can be tried out virtually, without any hassle. Some AR mirrors also have a social media sharing option. Retailers can also use AR-based apps that can help shoppers check product price, information, and offers as they walk through the store, without taking items off the shelf, creating a very liberating experience.

Trend Alert #2: Virtual Reality (VR)

While AR enables convenient shopping experiences, virtual reality (VR) makes it truly immersive. It creates experience zones that bring completely new worlds into the retail space. VR zones can be used many ways – to allow shoppers to try out features of products yet to enter the market, to unwind with interesting games, to show virtual tours of brands’ initiatives or campaigns. Take a look at TOMS’ VR video showcasing the journey their Giving Partners undertook to provide shoes to kids who don’t have any.

Tom's Video

It also gives both retailers and brands the opportunity to step away from traditional advertising methods and to use story-telling interwoven in immersive VR experiences, to differentiate and give customers an experience they will remember. VR can also be used to test-drive automobiles in simulated environments similar to real-world conditions, albeit without the related risks.

Trend Alert #3: Robots

Amazon Robots

One of the most ground-breaking uses of AI in retail has been in robots. Today, retail robots can be customized with a range of capabilities aligned to the needs of the store. Of the many challenges that large stores face, managing inventory efficiently is a key problem. AI-enabled robots can help overcome the issue.

These robots can move inventory around on demand, so store staff don’t have to walk the entire length of the floor to get one item. This improves staff efficiency and productivity, allowing them to take on more high-value tasks. See how Amazon employed robots to ensure the right products reach customers even in the middle of the holiday shopping rush.

Trend Alert #4: Chatbots

Customers spend close to an hour a day texting on their smartphones, according to a report by eMarketer’s Mobile Usage Report2. That makes text/chat a valuable touch point for retailers – one that they can tap into with chatbots, to offer customer support. With chatbots, customers no longer have to go through long wait times to get connected to the right customer support department or find the product that they are looking for.

Nordstrom recently used a chatbot to help holiday shoppers find the right gifts. It helped the luxury department store chain provide the personalized experience that shoppers expect from them, even during a busy time like Christmas. By integrating a chatbot with superior AI capabilities that allows it to learn from every customer experience or interaction, retailers can deliver a personalized experience time and time again.

Trend Alert #5: Voice

Just like chat, voice too is becoming a widely popular user interface as voice-activated assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home. This interface will very soon become a key platform for customer engagement in retail. Imagine this: a customer finds a great jacket and wants it in his size. With a voice activated assistant, he doesn’t have to look for a shop assistant. He just has to talk to the voice activated assistant, which will update him about the product availability.

I believe that soon, retailers will be able to use voice activated assistants to stay relevant in customers’ minds post-purchase, by sharing customized or geolocation specific deals through these devices at their homes. Imagine this: A customer asks her voice-activated assistant to add a luxury product to her shopping list and look for offers at nearby stores. The device pings stores and one shares an offer relevant to the shopper. These are the shopping experiences of the future that will be relevant to customers.

Trend Alert #6: Drones

If tomorrow’s shoppers are going to have great immersive experiences within the store with AR and VR, robots, voice and chat, they are going to expect the last leg of their shopping journey to also be impressive. And this is possible with drones. Once customers purchase a product, they can leave it at the store and have it delivered to them or another addressee that they choose, within minutes via drones.

Drones can also be used for warehouse activities like stock counting and inventory management. The technology will soon develop to a point that will allow retailers, especially large format retailers to stock products with ease and update inventories automatically, enhancing warehouse productivity.

When I think of all these technologies merging in retail, I visualize a future where retail is an innovative space where people come to try out something new. It can be a new technology, a new product, a new experience, or even a new reality – in the immersive, intuitive and highly integrated way that only the new technology will allow.

It will be immersive, giving customers an experience they will remember. It will be intuitive, allowing them to interact with products and even the store in ways they are familiar with – through voice, chat and touch. It will be highly integrated connecting the shopper, shop manager, store assistant, in-store devices and products seamlessly and conveniently.