Once again, I had the privilege of presenting at VMSD’s International Retail Design Conference last fall on (surprise, surprise) technology and store design, this time focusing on how technologies can be used to unify the shopping experience across the touchpoints where shoppers engage with a retail brand.
After my presentation, a conference attendee asked, “Last year, you talked a lot about QR codes. This year it was augmented reality. How do we know when to invest in which technology?”
While the connection between typing in the name of a product, scanning a QR code and using augmented reality was perfectly clear to me (they are all incrementally easier ways to connect a physical object with digital content), I realized that it wasn’t clear to someone who hadn’t been exposed to the way technology and interface had evolved over time. In fact, without that key piece of information, a retailer might think that it had to choose between these technologies rather than have a strategy that evolves through them.
This conversation made me realize that one of the things that’s changing the most is the way that store designers are viewing technology: It’s moving away from being an oddity and is quickly becoming a core tool in the arsenal.
But as the tool sets become more integrated, the skills to wield them effectively are changing. Everything from the business model (who makes money when) to the relationship with the retailer seems to be in flux, all at the same time. And as practical guidance from some of our experiences at bringing the digital and physical processes together, I’d like to offer this five-point checklist:
Normalize the business models and timelines first. Digital and physical design and implementation work on dramatically different timelines, yet both have critical path milestones that need to be clearly connected. This is compounded by different business models and which services are paid and which are overhead, so crafting a joint engagement takes careful planning and some candid conversations up front.
Make IT your ally. Most retail organizations have some degree of siloing in them. Often, internal technology resources are imperfectly aligned under the “IT” banner, but this poses challenges when bringing digital into the store, since core technology systems like p-o-s and merchandising often impose limitations on what can be done with kiosks, tablets and digital signage. However, IT is probably already looking at or actively piloting next-generation technologies, and a new store design can be a perfect excuse to elevate the pilot.
Double your project management budget, then double it again. The reality of digital/physical projects is that even internally, these teams are not naturally aligned, and the next-generation nature of projects means that far more communication and project management is necessary. Meetings are twice as long, get half as much done and need to be done twice as often. So plan accordingly in your budgeting to ensure that there isn’t a bad feeling at the end from people who didn’t participate in reviewing the project management budget.
Everybody needs to change their perception of their role. We talked a lot at IRDC 2011 about digital paint, which is the digital projection of content into a 3-D space. It’s a great example of how creating an amazing experience requires digital designers to think like physical designers (by thinking of digital not as something on the flat plane of a monitor, but rather integrated into a three-dimensional space) and requires physical designers to think like digital designers (by thinking of surfaces and textures not as static but as moving and dynamic visual elements).
The “great” idea collaboration is the easy part; figuring out how to shepherd the vision is hard. The first “aha!” experiences of the crossover of tech and design tend to be like epiphanies: eye-opening and seemingly very powerful, but still lacking the finesse and impact that comes from thoughtfully and creatively applying them. The discipline of design review cycles, iteration and project management is less sexy, but even more necessary when dealing with the increased risk that comes from trying something new.
Without a shared vision between digital and physical designers, where the overall experience a shopper has is jointly and creatively developed, all of the amazing technologies become nothing more than flash-in-the-pan tricks, wasting a lot of time and money and, ultimately, accomplishing nothing.
So when I think about the question of how different technologies evolve, it’s an important one. But perhaps even more important is the question of how the industry itself is evolving. We already know 2012 is going to be different. We’re working with store designers on actual projects, which, as we all know, is the true test of how far partnerships can evolve.
Jim Crawford (about.me/jimcrawford) is executive director of the Global Retail Executive Council (grec), an international association, and a principal at Taberna Retail, a global retail shopping experience consulting company.
Illustration: Karen Boyhen, Cincinnati