Ben Davis: Retailers should look to Ikea for tech inspiration

Retail tech has typically disappointed, but with consumers increasingly wanting convenience online and in-store tech, shopping brands selling a considered purchase have to walk this multichannel path.

Ikea

How can we improve brick and mortar stores? Well, despite editing the Econsultancy blog – a home for digital marketing, ecommerce and digital business types – I am certainly no campaigner for consumer-facing digital tech on the high street.

Off-the-shelf tech (no pun intended) has traditionally disappointed, whether it be the screen in the corner that nobody uses, beacons pushing messages that nobody wants, or another overly complex example with a user experience (UX) far inferior to our favourite smartphone tools.

Thankfully though, things are moving along quite nicely, largely because of the maturation of digital, a savvy public, and that recently rediscovered marketing mantra of focusing on the customer experience.

Ikea, as usual, is one of the retailers that seems to have hit the nail on the head, using consumer-facing digital tech in a sympathetic way in its new, small-format, inner city stores.

The flat-pack pioneer has always understood good design. I can name several examples from its traditional out-of-town stores off pat:

  • The liberal offering of little pencils and order forms to jot down product serial numbers and warehouse locations.
  • The tray trolleys in the canteen.
  • The linear shopping route with its overhead directional signage (featuring shortcuts).
  • The distinctive product titles and clear pricing.

Ikea even managed to make great early use of the in-store touchscreen, beginning in the early noughties with loyalty card sign-ups, and increasingly seen alongside customisable products in the showroom (such as modular sofas and fitted kitchens).

On a recent trip to Ikea a beautifully shot video caught my attention. It was projected on a screen above a modular sofa and produced using stop motion. The sofa restlessly rearranged itself in many different configurations – expanding, extending, reclining, rotating etc.

The video artfully showcased the product’s versatility, and after watching it I could use a touchscreen configurator to customise my own version. Honestly, I actually engaged with the tech for two to three minutes.

Back to those new, small-scale city stores then. More than 20 of them have opened since 2015 in Europe, Canada, China and Japan, with each covering around 5% of the floor space of a typical out-of-town store. The stores are designed to attract city dwellers who may have neither the vehicle nor the inclination to visit out-of-town stores (where footfall has remained static for the last five years).

These new stores still include mocked-up rooms, but crucially also tech that Ikea has quietly been perfecting and is now pretty robust. Customers can order a delivery or a click-and-collect from a touchscreen, as well as booking assembly via the recently acquired Taskrabbit. VR software helps to realise kitchen plans, something Ikea has piloted since 2016. The playful element of this software brings an undeniable element of fun to a customer interaction (ordering a kitchen) which, let’s face it, isn’t everybody’s idea of an enjoyable weekend activity. Even in-store coffee machines are examples, I would argue, of tech that significantly enhances the shopping experience.

Customers now want convenience online and in-store, with the ability to touch and feel products, but also to browse a full range and customise their own solutions, picking them up or having them delivered when it suits.

Incidentally, Ikea now has considerable chops in augmented reality content, too. Its Place AR app rolled out in September 2017 using Apple’s impressive ARKit and helps consumers place virtual but realistic furniture in their home, to get a feel for scale and fit. This is a powerful tool for enabling increased sales among loyal Ikea customers.

All this tech may still be an acquired taste, but it is sympathetic to the Ikea shopping experience. It speaks volumes that the smaller format stores are also very well staffed, with 20 or so personnel available to provide great customer service, with or without tech involved.

What’s my point here? Well, that customers now want convenience online and in-store, with the ability to touch and feel products, but also to browse a full range and customise their own solutions, picking them up or having them delivered when it suits. In-store tech has an integral part to play in this multichannel and flexible way of shopping, from ordering and logistics to inspirational content.

Retailers selling considered purchases are undoubtedly having to walk this path. This is particularly pertinent in automotive, where manufacturers are embracing ecommerce and small-format, tech-enhanced stores are popping up in shopping centres.

As trite as it may seem, this is a trend where customer convenience is prioritised ahead of retailer convenience. I, for one, will happily forgo a plate of meatballs in favour of a tech-enabled city-centre store.

Ben Davis is editor at Marketing Week’s sister title Econsultancy.

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