A] Introduction: The Problem
Billions of dollars have been invested into e-Commerce technologies. It’s easy, functional, cost-effective, convenient and smart. With the invention of e-Commerce websites and apps – people have been thinking of this to be the future of B2C. There has been a sharp rise in e-Commerce B2C spending over the past few years. Investors are bullish about this new medium of buying goods and services online. However, it is obvious that this growth is about to come to a standstill in a few years to come. Most e-Commerce enthusiasts fail to realize that 64% of the global population is yet not online!(1)
It will be a long time before an actual shift can be made in shopping culture – from buying goods in physical shops/markets to buying goods online using an app/website. Perhaps, this will never be achieved and both mediums with run parallel to each other.
Even among internet users, there is a small fraction of users that actually prefer to buy goods/services online rather than going to a shop. So, why is that majority of the people (internet users) still prefer to go a to shop and buy their products rather than buying it online? The Retail Experience. This brings us to the next question: Why are increasing number of people using e-Commerce sites/apps to buy their goods and services? The E-Commerce Experience.
1. Problems with the e-Commerce experience:
Keeping the obvious problems like bad site/application design or functionality, payment gateway provider issues or limitations of delivery/logistics of goods within same day aside – I will focus on the issue with respect to the subject matter studied in the foundations of Ubiquitous Computing.
For hundreds of years human beings have been buying their goods/services by going to a shop/market – not on a device. After a long work day and on my way home when I want to buy milk I think of a super market – not a website. It’s just natural. The idea of being able to compare goods and find several options in a shop/market with different ‘sections’ for products in a real world 3 dimensional environment of a physical shop is far superior than viewing ‘categories’ and clicking it on a website or an app. Having to sit in front of plastic and metal device and buy goods will never give the end user the same experience that an actual shop could. This is something about the buying experience at a real physical shop that a 5inch, 7inch or even a 22inch computing device like a mobile, tablet or PC cannot provide!
For a moment, think about how you interact with a Desktop, Tablet or Mobile while buying a product. It is so external, impersonal and unnatural. You sit in front a device (laptop, desktop, mobile, tablet etc), load a website or an app, browse from a variety of products available on a site/app, compare products, read reviews and make the payment. A few days later the product is delivered at home. But when you think about it, all of it was done on a plastic and metal device – it’s unnatural and inhuman. We are interacting with a device and not an environment. As human beings, since we were born, we have been used to interacting with the environment and elements within that environment. We are not used to interacting with an element and an environment within that element. Computing by itself, should not be done by personal computers, tablets, mobile etc. In fact, it should be done by the environment. Humans are better tuned to interact with environments and not devices with an environment within.
2. Problems with the Retail Experience:
Even with the unmatched experience of retail shopping, online retail has been growing every year. Why does that happen?
Shopping in a large physical shops can be a very stressful and frustrating experience – all the colours, choices, comparisons of price and features, different fonts and packaging, navigating through thousands of products before finding the right product, standing in long lines during checkout and so on. This can be frustrating for many people forcing them to buy their products online.
It’s clear that most people prefer shopping online because there is a huge variety of options to choose from. The biggest problems with local shops is ‘stocking’. Warehousing and stocking of inventory shoots up the cost shops thereby forcing them to keep limited products.
Online e-Commerce companies (example: existing websites like e-Commerce websites like Amazon and eBay) understand these problems and have invested heavily into developing cutting edge cutting edge e-Commerce applications/tools like 'product comparison', 'social recommendations', 'filters for quick navigation and selection' and 'reviews' that enhance and improve the user experience. Modern day e-Commerce technology makes the buying experience much smarter and friction-less.
So, the question that I ask is:
Can we make the shopping experience smoother, smarter and better with intelligent use of e-Commerce technologies in Retail Environments?
B] The Solution: E-Commerce Experience with Retail Environments (REEE)
The ideas I am about to discuss could be revolutionary for Retailers and B2C. This project is possible through a culmination of technologies available as of today:
1. Internet/Cloud e-Commerce Based Applications
2. LED/LCD Display Panels
3. (Airport) Baggage Handling Systems
What is EERE?
EERE is a conceptual model of integrating the powerful computing of modern day e-Commerce (tools and applications) to enhance the shopping experience in Retail Environments.
The idea is simple by logic as will be explained in the following 2 simple steps:
1. The buying & choosing process:
Imagine a shop with no shelves and no products. Just walls. Different sections (for example Fashion, Health, Wellness, Kitchen etc) with wall-mounted LED display panels with a list of different products. The panels have all the products displayed on them just like an e-Commerce website. People can swipe and select products. Advanced search techniques to find the right products and add them to your checkout cart. Instead of physically picking up your products and dumping them to your shopping basket, users just swipe through the products on the large display panels and add them to an electronic cart.
Intelligent search and knowledge systems that allow you to find the right product using advanced filtering and selecting methods:
Example 1: “I need cheese with less than 12% fat” The panel displays all the available cheeses with less than 12% fat.
Example 2: “I need juice with zero preservatives” The panels displays all the available juices with no added preservatives.
Example 3: “I need blue bed sheets within $30 to $50.” Nested logic is applied here and the panel will display all available blue bed sheets within the specified price range”
Example 4: “Breakfast items for a diabetic.” The panel will show all the available breakfast items with no or low sugar.
Social recommendations tools allow users to see what their friends have been buying and read their (or general user) reviews before making the purchase. This makes the buying and choosing process much faster, better and smarter.
The checkout and delivery process:
One thing about the physical shopping experience that no e-commerce website, no matter how large, cannot match is timely delivery. The idea of paying and getting your goods instantly the moment you want them is only possible through physical buying and not online buying.
In 2012 the Heathrow recorded 69.98 million passengers (2). Ever wondered how
almost all the passengers got their bags through designated conveyor belts on time? Airports use advanced baggage management systems with conveyor belts and displays that tell you when and where you can collect your baggage from.
Once the products have been been selected and paid for by automatic cash/card acceptance machines, you wait at the belt assigned to you. Goods are automatically transported from the warehouse / stock storage place via these conveyor belts and can be picked up by the end user.
Conclusion: Many organizations are trying various concepts like billboard & QR code shopping whereby product images and prices are listed on the walls of public areas and can be added to cart by simple using a smart phone and QR code app. This still defeats the idea of making the Retail Environment smarter. With EERE, the retailers will be able to provide an an unmatched buying experience using the best of the two mediums – the retail experience and the eCommerce experience.
Although the idea is in it’s nascent stage, I spot huge potential for EERE.
1. World Bank - http://data.worldbank.org/