Once upon a time, shopping was an entertainment to look forward to.

Then came an explosion of data in the form of Internet and smartphones. E-commerce made a grand entry and turned the purchase experience on its head, giving customers an efficiency and convenience they’d never seen before.

And now the mall-hoppers suddenly find something missing from their shopping experience. The good old brick and mortar stores are starting to feel boring, crowded, old-fashioned, inconvenient, and lacking in service. Shoppers clearly expect more from them, and most retailers realize there’s no way to remain a favorite with customers unless they innovate.

Retail houses need to innovate to continue attracting customers

Our lives are now seamlessly integrated between the online and offline world. A shopper no longer wishes to think of these two as separate channels or mediums.  She shops on websites and in stores. She glances at her smartphone umpteen times even as she converses verbally. She makes movie and travel bookings online, and shows her smartphone screen to the ticket checker on trains. Well, if something as old as the Indian Railways can change, why can’t retailers? Can’t blame the customer for raising her expectations.

A shopping experience to die for

In the ideal world, every time a customer walks into her favorite shop, she’s filled with surprise and delight. She remains connected to the virtual network even as she browses products at the physical venue. Merchandise is displayed neatly and intelligently to catch her attention, and promotions directed to her are always relevant and personalized. Accurate information, quick queues, mobile payments, easy returns- everything she wants is taken care of by her favorite store. She can order on the store website and collect her purchase instore, or she can buy products instore and have them delivered to her at home. It’s all one seamless intertwined experience delivered by the perfect hybrid of online and offline.

Skeptical? Sounds rather a long way off for a country like India?

Think again.

If there’s one area of development in which India has leapfrogged several stages, it’s the mobile revolution.  And that lever has the potential to transform even the age old retail industry.

Connect to customers one on one using smartphones

There’s been a proliferation of smartphones in the country, and these smartphones are hungry for good useful content. Their owners are hungry for a better digital experience in all walks of life. On the other hand, physical venues have been pushed into a corner by online competitors.  They are hungry to provide a spectacular new digital experience to win back customers. There’s no reason the twain can’t meet.

Smartphone owners are hungry for information, and stores are hungry for customers. Bridge the gap!

The basis, then, for the next evolution of brick and mortar stores has already been set, one that’s pivoted on the digital transformation of physical spaces and customer connect through smartphones. In this new avatar, retail stores will provide real-time information to customers throughout the purchase cycle, right from researching at home to shopping instore. They will delight customers with personalized offers and messages based on location, requirement, and history instead of sending mass spam. They will reward loyal customers with rewards that actually mean something to the end user, instead of a bunch of points that keep expiring. The time is ripe for a platform through which venues can finally have meaningful one-on-one conversations with their visitors.

The perfect solution

Many retailers are creating business apps that they want customers to install and use, either for product discovery or for enabling transactions. As the cost of developing mobile apps rapidly decreases, and the number of businesses vying for customer attention exponentially increases, it becomes very difficult for the customer to continue displaying her loyalty in this fashion. Limited phone storage space and limited attention both result in several apps getting uninstalled just as quickly as they are installed.

While customers demand relevant information and personalization, they are also increasingly conscious about sharing their own data with businesses. The ability to win the customer’s trust and put her at ease is paramount.

The perfect solution? A trusted web-app or third party mobile-app that would responsibly share data with businesses and ensure individual customers never get overwhelmed with random spammy messages. For retail houses, it would make more sense to disseminate offers and information through such a platform because it has a much higher chance of getting used both outside and inside the store. For the shopper, it’s a no-brainer: a single good app is far preferred to a set of apps that eat up precious megabytes and hardly ever get used.

Arming stores with sensors and big data analytics

If physical venues could be made as intelligent as online platforms by the use of sensors that collect real time visitor data, it would drive the next wave of innovations in the retail environment. Armed with such anonymous data, businesses would no longer have to depend on guesswork regarding the number of visitors and dwell times at their store. They’d be able to focus on improvement in operations and real-time services for visitors.

It’s important to note the word ‘anonymous’ here. With the rise of big data analytics many businesses are focused on collecting user data to learn more about their customers. However, the line between learning more and encroaching on privacy is a thin one, and no sane business should want to spook customers by collecting individual data when it’s not required. The beauty of such a sensor-based solution is that a business gets all the aggregate visitor data needed for improving operations and bench-marking stores without messing at all with visitors’ need for privacy.

LocalPeep takes the first step

We believe there’s a change waiting to happen in the way people experience physical venues. That’s why we’re building LocalPeep, a  mobile app that enables anyone with a smartphone to get the most out of everyday interactions with their favorite local haunts. Stay with us and watch this space as we endeavor to bring the joy back into shopping!