For years, imagination and modelling propelled the very sci-fi idea of computers running our lives. Think of people in the late 1960s imagining our life now — as illustrated in this 1969 film from the Philco-Ford Corporation that reveals what life will be like for a family living in 1999.
As computers got smaller and made their way into our homes, the idea of the Internet of Things seemed like more of a possibility. Kevin Ashton – the term’s probable inventor – started talking about the the Internet of Things in the late 1990s, and wrote about it for the RFID journal 2009. His idea and all the technology behind it is very big, but the gist is that we humans have input a lot of information into the Internet, and now we’ll be able to allow machines to input information and trade that information with other things. So that, as Ashton says, “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things – using data they gathered without any help from us – we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss, and cost.”
This has an altruistic application for our world – consider the environment, for instance, or all of the medical applications that could (and already do) benefit from this type of technology. As the Internet blurs the line between devices, humans, and machines, the Internet of Things is emerging as the next wave.
SimilarWeb is a leading platform that measures online behavior worldwide to generate marketing insights. Ari Rosenstein, the company’s Senior Director of Marketing, recently conducted a study on retail trends, and notes that desktop, mobile web, and apps are changing the landscape completely for retailers. “We are in a period of booming growth for platforms that empower SMB stores,” says Rosenstein. “The tools are out there for small sellers to build high quality online stores and start competing with the big guys.”
Shopify and eBay’s Magento platform are two online retailers that have propelled small sellers to big growth, while Amazon’s SellerCentral marketplace gains steam, as well.
Ebay’s Magento platform:
Looking at numbers like those can depress a traditional retailer.
The RFID technology that Ashton so loved has helped retailers become more nimble, tracking inventory better, adopting just-in-time supply chain methods that keep the right items in stock at the right price, but some retailers are bumping it up a notch, using multiple technologies to detect and record everything from traffic patterns on their shop floor to opting your mobile device onto the shop’s WiFi in order to track your behavior and push offers your way. Shoppers are largely unaware of this, but logging onto a store’s WiFi so that you can get good reception on your phone means you’ve opted into the store’s agreement, and they can track your behavior, capture search data, and push coupons and offers your way while you’re on their system. If this creeps you out a bit, read more on the subject from ConsumerReports.org.
Of course, not all tracking is necessarily an unwanted invasion of personal (virtual) space. Take the Nebraska Crossing Outlet's shopping mall, for example. By installing new 'iBeacons,' they've made it possible for shoppers to receive special push notifications such as coupons, promotions, and discounts, as soon as they enter shopping center, provided that they've opted into the program by downloading the free mobile application that goes along with it.
And, as an added bonus, the mall is including a special 'Carfinder' feature, so that no shoppers will ever have live in fear of wandering through mall-parking in a futile search of a misplaced automobile.
The Internet has made things more accessible locally as well as globally, blurring traditional retail boundaries. “For example,” says Rosenstein, “Israel has a population of close to 9 million people, so it’s a small market, yet we see that two of the largest U.S. retailers, eBay and Amazon, are in the top six ranked shopping sites in Israel.
What is even more amazing is that AliExpress, an Alibaba site, is ranked in the number five position. This means that Chinese retailers are selling direct to Israeli consumers.”
Have you been shoe shopping recently and the salesperson checks with the stock room for your size? This is part of a much larger inventory tracking system that automates the delivery and storage of shoes right down to that Cinderella moment when the associate slips the shoes onto your dainty feet in the store.
Look for this technology to pop up in many departments in malls everywhere. Now, sales associates can locate a product immediately. If it’s not available onsite, they can offer to ship it to you overnight, or have it held at another location where you can pick it up later.
That’s customer retention at its best. The next step in this evolution of convenience was outlined recently on the National Federation of Retailers site: You’ll walk into a store, the store’s technology will recognize you and your payment profile, you’ll pick up what you need and walk out without ever interacting with an associate or a cashier.
The most nimble and impactful technologies will likely continue to emerge through mobile apps and social media, the playground of the young — whose influence on retail is critical. SimilarWeb’s retail research arrived at some surprising conclusions about social media recently, identifying Reddit as an unexpected key influencer for retail.
“Reddit doesn’t seem like the most natural platform for e-commerce,” notes Rosenstein, “but the content sharing boards here are highly successful for driving traffic to shopping sites.” Data shows that in the past 24 months, Reddit sent 6.7 million outgoing visits to shopping category sites, showing aggressive growth, particularly for Shopify where it may have driven up to 152% more orders in 2013 than 2012, making it the fastest-growing social network for inspiring Shopify sales.
There have been some one-offs in the past few years. Japan’s talking hangers seems a bit far-flung, but there are some truly terrific ways that retail can embrace The Internet of Things. From simply adjusting the temperature and lighting in stores to make people feel better as they shop, to empowering customers to discover and explore more through their cell phones or even – eventually – their fully wearable technology. The marketplace has long been the bosom of innovation. We’re looking forward to a better future through technology.