San Francisco may be small in size, but it has always had big ambition. Now home to a slew of corporate tech pioneers, such as Alphabet Inc, Airbnb and Uber, it is also a city that rivals New York and LA for brand appeal. The result is a city awash with opinion makers, taste shapers and sector disruptors who are exposed to the latest digital thinking on a daily basis, in all aspects of life. On my latest visit to the Bay Area, the appetite for experimentation was clear, with countless retailers trialing new tech initiatives.

Target – 115 4th Street

Part retail space, part lab, part meeting venue for the ‘connected’; Target Open House is a 3,500 square-foot ode to IoT solutions. It may not be new (having first opened in 2015), but there were plenty of new additions on show.

Essentially an incubator to assess future thinking, Open House currently features the use of innovative tech to support Target’s latest homewares brand launch – Project 62. Put the VR glasses on, orientate via the iPad and the room before you in the digital house can be ‘furnished’ with items from the Project 62 Collection.

Meanwhile, the garage area celebrates start-up technologies (conceived in the nation’s garages) for new-to-market products. I’m told there are frequent and regular visits by employees from the tech firms themselves to introduce and demo their wares to shoppers – like Apple store theatres, but from a mixed audience rather than products just promoted by the company.

AT&T – 1 Powell Street

Making its home in what used to be a sprawling Forever 21 store, this AT&T flagship store is not only the first of its kind outside of Chicago, but also the brand’s largest. In some ways it vaguely reminded me of Disney World’s Epcot.

Inside, it offers a fully interactive connected experience with two vast floors for telecoms, smart home, smart transport, gaming and retail products. The main floor is devoted to phones and gadgets, plus an assortment of accessories that include some posher-than-usual items from brands such as Kate Spade.

Take the escalator up to the mezzanine, and you’ll find a series of experiences, such as a kitchen equipped with a smart refrigerator; a smart bike you can pedal while watching scenes of San Francisco; a living room-like area equipped with AT&T’s TV service, DirecTV; and a vast array of digital promotional content. Like so many other brands in this sector, the AT&T goal here is clear: get shoppers to think about AT&T as being more than a network provider for smartphones.

Old Navy – 801 Market Street

Old Navy exemplifies the challenges that established retailers face in the pursuit of tech ‘experimentation’. In this instance, it has chosen to remove its massive bank of cash desks – approx. 20 registers in a line, per floor – in preference for mobile on-the-floor payment. It’s no doubt designed to put more staff on the store floor and release more sales floor space in prime area for more product display. But while it probably is the direction of travel, and a mid-way between full self-serve and automated ‘grocery’ style checkouts, the process in Old Navy requires serious refinement.

I stood in line here, behind a shopper with a basket of over 30 sale items (for $35!). The iPhone barcode scanner took ages – the swipe card payment even longer. Believe me, the experience would test the patience of anyone wanting to buy a $14.99 T-Shirt.

 

It is a clear demonstration that while tech is capable of taking stores to the next level, and many retailers chase it; not all fully grasp that it can so easily become the problem, rather the solution.

Karl McKeever is founder and managing director of retail transformation agency, Visual Thinking. Follow him on Twitter @karlmckeever