The technology to free your inner shopaholic

Guests at Zara Phillips wedding No laughing matter: More and more of us are choosing to shop online - but investing in technology could help retailers keep more of us in store to choose that special outfit

Shopping for an outfit for a special occasion is not for the faint-hearted.

Technology of Business

Especially if the idea of spending hours negotiating a packed High Street trying not to give into the people-hating rage demon inside fills you with dread.

If so, you're not alone.

It's not entirely a coincidence that e-commerce sales grew 21.1% to top $1 trillion dollars in 2012 - and are expected to grow by another 18.3% this year, according to analysts eMarketer.

And it's no secret that this love affair with online shopping, with an added slice of global recession, has spelt disaster for more than one traditional bricks and mortar retailer. Survival in the modern age means investing in technology to a greater or lesser degree.

Macy's on Black Friday Modern warfare: If this crowd is enough to send you running for the hills, perhaps technology can help

Which is where one of the latest buzz words to spill into the mainstream comes in. Omni-commerce: It means instead of forcing consumers to choose between online and in store, it integrates the retail operation more fully, ultimately blurring the lines between the two ways of buying.

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In our view there is a sense of urgency [for retailers]”

End Quote Giovanni Bandi NCR

Retail technology specialists NCR certainly think this is the way forward. Originally a company that specialised in making cash registers, they too have had to come to terms with the changing retail environment.

"I think the key is really to try to identify the area where you need to have a strategy, but then have something concrete that [retailers] can start implementing today," says Giovanni Bandi, NCRs northern Europe sales director.

"Because in our view there is a sense of urgency, I am not going to bother you with data about the fact that the High Street is in trouble, all of this story we know, but the point is how to move, and move quickly."

Sartorial elegance

So what about that wedding outfit?

You've found a dress or suit that seems perfect, but as any seasoned shopper will tell you, this is where the really painful part starts: accessories.

Tramping from shop to shop trying to find the shoes, the bag, the shirt or the tie to match the fabulous puce outfit you've set your heart on.

Kohl's kiosk The kiosks can also be used as a mini store front - like this one at New York's JFK Airport

NCR think they may have found the answer.

Their Endless Aisle kiosk looks rather like a giant slimline tablet computer on a stand, with an LED touchscreen.

One of the apps available lets customers take an item, hold it up to a camera and have the kiosk match the colour exactly.

It then displays the items it has in stock, shoes and handbags for example, that match or complement it. The customer can then see what items, sizes and colours are in stock, select which to try on, and even pay for, or order, out of stock items for home delivery. It is designed to integrate with a shop's e-commerce offering, as well as mobile apps.

"The challenge is to take the same experience from the web platform and make it available on the mobile application with the same level of flexibility in configuration as you do within a kiosk," says NCR's Kevin Briggs.

"They've all got to give the same level of expectation for the customer."

Mr Briggs says the way we look at shopping has changed fundamentally.

"In bygone years, the retailer used to be able to dictate to the customer, in terms of what the customer journey was, it used to be in store, select the item, go to the traditional point of sale.

Kiosk screenshot Decisions, decisions: The kiosk lets you see what would go with your new outfit - without scouring the shop floor

"Now I think that table has turned. The consumer now dictates and has... the means to use different technologies [to shop]. So I think the pendulum has swung to the customer. And the challenge for the retailer is to meet that challenge."

Research by Samsung suggests Mr Briggs is correct. Although 72% of retailers believe investing in technology in store is vital to compete with the web, only 35% have got as far as adopting even established technologies like tablets.

"Retail is no longer about where people are shopping, but how they are shopping. For the High Street, competing with the convenience of online, technology plays an essential role in differentiating and enriching the shopper's experience in-store," says the company's Philip Oldham.

Augmenting reality

Trying on the full wedding ensemble, you are suddenly seized by the deep conviction that the colour you have chosen makes you look like you have spent a week in hospital. Back to the drawing board.

You happen to be wearing a jumper in your favourite colour that day. Grabbing a bag you quite like the look of you move over to the mirror to have a look.

It picks up the colour you're wearing and throws up a display of clothing available in that shade. You choose a likely looking frock, and in front of you is an augmented reality image showing you how it would look.

It also reads the RFID tag on the bag and shows you other items in a range you might like to buy.

This technology is being developed by a company called MediaZest, using Samsung LED display equipment.

Interactive mirror Mirror image: The screens can be configured to show your reflection, images, video or a mix of all three

"We are getting a lot of interest from the fashion industry," says chief executive Geoff Robertson.

"We have a solution that uses movement to trigger content which is applicable to fashion retail, but also in the hospitality arena, for example, in a department store we could use it to trigger relevant content dependent upon which direction someone comes from."

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Retail is no longer about where people are shopping, but how they are shopping”

End Quote Philip Oldham Samsung

The company has also developed a system that displays different content on a video screen depending on who is looking at it.

"This is technology we have recently begun to use to help us measure audience, improve content and drive the content shown," says Mr Robertson.

"It uses a PC, webcam and a Samsung screen. The webcam is placed on top of the screen looking outward so it can ascertain how many people are looking at the content, for how long and their gender. Based on the overall gender bias of the results we play relevant content."

"The system can also be used to classify age range and generates dashboard reports that show gender and age mix across the day - very useful in programming content for department stores, for example. Privacy is maintained as none of the images are stored - only the data about that image is captured."

Friendly advice

The image staring back at you looks more like someone in a potato sack than the slim and gorgeous fashion plate of your imagination. You begin to distrust your own ability to choose clothing. If only you had a few friends around who could help you out.

If you're shopping in C&A in Brazil, then you can call on the opinions of thousands of people to help guide you to what's on trend for that season.

Fashion Like hangers at C&A Brazil Confessions of a shopaholic: The Facebook likes are shown on the hanger, so shoppers can see what's popular

The company uses bespoke coathangers for special clothing lines that show the amount of likes a piece has had on their Facebook page. Each hanger is connected to the web via a microcontroller that transmits likes in real time from the page.

The technology has won several awards.

"It was the first time that the online world and real world stood side by side in a store. The customers loved to see how a piece was desired and liked by others," says a spokesperson for C&A.

"In the first edition of Fashion Like, the piece of clothing with the greatest number of recommendations was also the store's best seller."

According to Bo Derek, whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.

Many of us need little persuasion to devote a day to a little retail therapy. And with the right technology, maybe the rest of us could learn to stop worrying and love the shops.

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