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COMMENTARY: Build a Better Shopping Experience With Digital Layers
May 16, 2017

By Amitaabh Malhotra

Remember the Pokémon GO craze? The game was a megahit because it cleverly combined the physical and digital worlds. It added an augmented contextual layer so players could use smart-phone map and camera functions to interact with characters, other players, and game elements. What if a similar augmentation toolkit were available to retailers to create a unique contextual-commerce experience for shoppers?

Image Credit: Credit: Omnyway
The digital layer enhances shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, says Malhotra.

Shoppers are ready for this type of experience. More than 90% already use smart phones while shopping. This approach gives shoppers a unique new experience that attracts Millennials and Generation Z while profoundly simplifying the purchasing process. And it can make the shopping zone truly boundless.

Shopping might start at home, with shoppers flipping through a catalog or browsing online and accessing a digital layer on their mobile device that personalizes the content with specific offers or bundles. Instead of having to remember an ad for later, customers in this scenario can buy with one click and without leaving the context they’re in.

The digital layer also enhances shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. Shoppers still value the tactile experience of in-person shopping. But now retailers can add a digital layer, allowing customers to scan an item for in-depth information beyond the tag description, plus access reviews and social content from friends.

The in-store digital layer can include personalized offers, pricing, bundles, financing and payment options, promotions, third-party rewards, and more. A smart system can pick the best combination that is uniquely individualized to the shopper. The shopper can then select the offer, which is automatically applied as they go through the physical checkout process.

The same system can virtually expand the store’s inventory by highlighting offsite items, or “virtual aisles,” in industry parlance. As shoppers view items in-store, the digital layer can offer related products not carried in the store, such as long-tail items or products offered by partners or local businesses. This creates a virtual marketplace inside the physical store. With just a click, online purchases are combined with in-store purchases for one seamless checkout.

Extending it further, augmented contextual commerce can make the whole world a virtual showroom. Customers can scan a pair of boots, a handbag, a power drill, etc., and instantly receive more information, including the nearest location that sells the item, applicable discounts or offers, and instant purchase and delivery options — all from within their favorite application or device.

Augmented contextual features will disrupt the retail sector as thoroughly as ride-share services upended the taxi industry. From the consumer’s perspective, it removes the friction in the purchasing process. It converts the raw urge to buy into action, with everything taken care of on the back end, just as ride-share services make getting home a matter of a few clicks.

The strategy works best with a platform that operates across all types of point-of-sale systems, e-commerce sites, and native mobile apps. It is most effective when there’s no requirement for in-store hardware, deploying instead via application programming interfaces to minimize integration and certification requirements. In this way, retailers can deliver a consistent experience across channels.

A device-agnostic approach is essential too, using functions that are available on virtually all mobile systems (Bluetooth, camera, GPS, etc.) to maximize shopper participation. This makes the system future-proof. As consumers adopt technology beyond smart phones, the backend will be ready to serve the next generation of smart wearables and devices.

This is a tough time for retailers. Many chains are closing stores, laying off workers, and struggling to adapt to new consumer habits. A future-forward strategy like augmented contextual commerce can bring retailers fully into the 21st century, providing the convenience, automation, social sensibility, and personalization today’s consumers crave by merging the physical and digital worlds.

Amitaabh Malhotra is chief marketing officer at Omnyway, San Francisco.

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