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The Future Storefront: How Brick and Mortar Retail Will Look by Chris Burch

Chris Burch, @https://twitter.com/thekingburch
08.31.16
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When e-commerce hit the scene, many believed that it spelled the end of brick-and-mortar retail as we know it. Fortunately for storefront businesses, this hasn't come to fruition. However, the march of digital commerce goes on. Consider this: In 2013, 8 percent of all sales were made online. By 2018, that number is expected to hit 11 percent.

Instead of going extinct, brick-and-mortar businesses are adapting. In fact, many are embracing the rise of mobile and Internet technologies by encouraging them and even incorporating them into their stores.

Here's what you can expect storefronts to look like in the years to come.

One Store, Many Roles

Traditionally, a retail store was strictly transactional in nature. People came in, selected goods, paid for them and left.

To compete with online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores are assuming many different roles. Some, like Tesla, act strictly as showrooms. They keep no inventory on hand but allow customers to check out the offerings before placing their orders online. Others, like Apple and Williams-Sonoma, act as mini schools, offering cooking classes and training lessons.

Depending on the nature of a store's business, then, you can expect to see many iterations of this concept in the years to come and for the role of brick-and-mortar stores to evolve over time.

Digital Technology to the Rescue

Consumers are comfortable in the digital world, and savvy storefronts are capitalizing on this by incorporating familiar digital features into their layouts. These include:
  • Kiosks with digital screens that display personalized content to shoppers
  • Digital concierges that greet customers, offer recommendations, inform about special offers and more
  • Coupons and other communications sent directly to consumers' phones via near-field communication technology
  • Cloud-based POS systems that allow employees to process transactions anywhere as opposed to stationary cash registers

Coming Soon to a Storefront Near You

Chances are that you have at least had a glimpse of the future of the storefront, as many major brands have already embraced some of the following:
  • Beacons - Enabled by Bluetooth technology, beacons are quickly merging the worlds of online and offline retail. Upon entering a store, customers' phones may light up with customized messages from a business. These may include coupons that can be used right then and there, product recommendations and other types of correspondence. Data from those who have opted in may also be sent to the store, allowing the company to collect still more information.
  • RFID - Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a location-based technology that has upended the way in which retailers track inventory. Special tags are attached to items and can then be tracked digitally. Not surprisingly, brands have come up with even more innovative ways to capitalize on RFID. For example, some Ralph Lauren locations use the technology in fitting rooms so that customers can instantly check for other sizes and colors of whatever they are trying on.
  • Augmented Reality - Augmented reality refers to adding video, sound and graphics to a real-world environment. Storefronts of the future will expand upon what retailers are already doing with the technology, including demonstrating to customers how products can be arranged and used. Someday, you can expect to see virtual fitting rooms, interactive window displays and augmented reality-assisted navigation through larger stores.
  • Virtual Reality - Virtual reality's time has come. The technology dominated the scene at the most recent CES in Las Vegas, and its immersive nature is endlessly appealing to brick-and-mortar retailers for all kinds of reasons. A handful of Lowe's stores have already put VR to use with so-called "Holorooms" that customers can use to experience products virtually. Holorooms provide 3-D mockups that allow customers to arrange various items to see how they go together. They can be personalized to reflect the details of a customer's actual kitchen, for instance, so they seamlessly blend the real world with the digital one.
  • Wearables - The best examples of wearables include Google Glass and devices like Fitbits and other smart watches. However, new wearables are being developed all of the time. In addition to providing data to those who wear them, they can be used to transmit information to businesses as well. In the future, wearables may be used on a crowd-sourced basis to alert consumers of long lines, special happenings and more. Brands that capitalize on this technology will benefit enormously--especially when it comes to gathering useful information.
Step into the Future
Most of the technologies highlighted above are already being used to some degree by at least a few brands. To a certain extent, then, you've already seen the storefront of the future. Before too long, it will become increasingly difficult to separate e-commerce from brick-and-mortar retail--and that's great news for physical storefronts.

Chris Burch is a leading entrepreneur, venture capitalist and founder of Burch Creative Capital.
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