Eighty miles outside of London, BT houses its global research and development (R&D) centre, Adastral Park. Last week, the managed services company launched its Alexander Black concept store, where it showcases more than 40 advanced retail technologies, from interactive shop windows and changing rooms to the latest developments in RFID and NFC.

BT said the rise in customer expectations is driving an investment in these technologies for physical stores – which still account for around 90% of retail sales. The concept store acts as inspiration for retailers looking to see how they can digitise their store estates, highlighting the raft of options now available on the market.

"People still really like shopping in physical stores but they want it to be much more like it is online: easy, personalised and entertaining," explains Hubertus von Roenne, vice president, global industry practices, at BT’s global services division.

"Alexander Black looks and feels like a real store and even includes a café to complete the shopping experience. It allows our retailer customers to get their hands on digital touch points such as a shop window display to show how they could interact with shoppers out of hours, a memory mirror with a 360-degree view for trying on new outfits, intelligent merchandise labels and a mobile app for the café. It integrates these solutions to blur the lines between shopping online and in-store, creating the seamless brand experience that digital consumers expect."

BT's head of industry portfolio and global services, Jeremy Griggs, describes how BT can help retailers scale these digital store technologies across their global estates. 

"How do I scale this across my global store estate, when I have a fairly limited IT team and need to work 24/7 day-after-day?" he says retailers are asking him. "It's partly about design, partly about how you manage those assets. And we're proactively monitoring all the items – in many cases retailers rely on customers or assistants to report a failure."

He says as a managed services company BT offers a helpdesk for if, or when, the technology fails – which means retailers don't need to contact different vendors when different parts of the ecosystem break down.

"We have the ability to manage it right from the end point and that's how you make it robust," he adds. 

Essential Retail was invited up to Ipswich to take a look at the store and here is a round up of the ten most interesting retail technologies we witnessed:

1. Interactive shop windows

Standing outside the Alexander Black store, BT has created an interactive shop window to demonstrate how the store can keep on adding value even when it is closed. The windows provide additional information on products and customers with the retail app can use beacon technology to load the eCommerce page associated with an item in the window, while foot-level cameras even allow customers to virtually try-on a pair of shoes.

2. QR codes and NFC for customer check-in

NFC and QR codes sit side-by-side offering both Android (NFC) and iOS (QR) customers interactivity. Customers can choose to tap or scan at a 'check-in' point near the shop entrance which could be incentivised by promotions. This technology can also recognise previously checked-in customers to learn who is entering the store and if this information is tied to a loyalty or payment card at the point of sale, retailers can start to see in-store conversion patterns.

As iOS does not currently offer interactive NFC capabilities, Apple customers will have to scan a QR code using a pre-downloaded applications – this could either be a standalone QR code reader, or the functionality could also be built into the retailer's app.

Meanwhile, if customers do not wish to check-in, innovative foot-level camera technology, from start-up, Hoxton Analytics, allows the retailer to assess basic demographics such as age and gender from the footwear of customers walking through the door.  

3. Digital signage

Alexander Black features a striking piece of 'wall art' as customers enter the store. This is made up of nine multi-dimensional 4K screens to make up a video wall, which can deliver powerful content at the heart of the store. Additionally, retailers can choose to make a couple of the nine screens interactive, which saves costs of deploying this technology across the entire wall.

Meanwhile, separate screens around the store feature built-in cameras which can assess a customer's age, gender and ethnicity before delivering targeted content and messaging to enhance the customer experience, increase dwell time and uplift sales. The content can be dynamically changed, driven by personalised promotions and integrated into inventory management and POS systems.

4. RFID for interactivity

With wider adoption of RFID tags driving down the price, there are many opportunities for retailers looking to use the technology.

RFID-tagged products can sit on a reader embedded in a shelf, when lifted the reader alerts the nearby interactive screen, which comes to life with further information about the product, as well as alternative colours, suggestions and even online reviews.

Using the retailer's app, customers can also trigger proximity content about products themselves. Meanwhile, an interactive touch table encourages customers to place RFID-tagged products on the table which triggers product content information and customers can self-serve or digitally call an assistant for help. 

5. Assisted selling

Using the digital signage around the store, sales assistants armed with tablet devices will be able to help customers by "pushing" information on their tablets onto the larger screens for better product representation. This technology will be particularly useful for stores with smaller footprints as the retailer's eCommerce operations could help extend its range.

6. Interactive fitting room

An RFID reader in the changing room automatically identifies the items a customers takes in to try on, this ensures the retailer knows where its items are on the shop floor and can alert a sales assistant to a high value item in the changing room. Using the interactive mirrors, customers can request different sizes, colours and items without leaving the fitting room, via an alert sent to the sales assistant.

Data gained from the fitting room experience can also inform the retailer of problems with its stock. For instance, if a black skirt is popular and tried on many times, but has a small conversion rate, the retailer may want to go to the supplier and check the fit and cut of the item is correct.

Further down the line, retailers will be able to combine customer check-in data with the RFID data, so they understand what a customer is trying on and what they did not buy, in order to send timely follow-up marketing messages based on their tastes. 

7. Memory mirror

Shoppers are increasing taking 'chelfies' – changing-room selfies – to ask for advice from family and friends when shopping in-stores. BT's memory mirror has a built-in camera with a slight delay so customers can see how they look as they move around wearing clothes they are thinking of buying. They can then play-back a video of themselves to see a 360 view of their outfit and this video can also be emailed or shared on social media.

8. Shelf monitoring

The grocery section of Alexander Black showcases a solution to monitor shelves to ensure they comply with planograms set by brands. Cameras monitor the area and can alert store staff to any movement in products.

BT's Jeremy Griggs says there has been talk by some of his clients around the use of camera-laden drones flying up and down the aisles to keep check on shelves. He also notes how the lower margins and higher turnover of products means RFID technology is much less cost effective in grocery. 

9. Intelligent packing

Products on the grocery shelves at Alexander Black feature invisible barcodes. The Digimarc Barcode ensures the check-out is frictionless as sales assistants will not need to struggle to find and scan barcodes on products.

10. Connected café

The end of the Alexander Black tour took us to the retailer's café. Many retailers are looking to integrate coffee shops and bars into the retail space because the consumable products provide a higher margin. The Oasis Tottenham Court Road store features a cocktail bar/tea room, as well as a salon offering hair, nail and brow treatments, and Ted Baker is also experimenting with its retail space.

The Alexander Black café used tablets to order drinks, which took a photo of the customer's face. When the drink is ready, the customers face and name appears on a digital board, next to the digital menu – which can also be changed based on product availability and demand.

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