There are a lot of merchants out there angling for the title "store of the future." And that claim can really mean almost anything at this point. When Walmart is building the store of the future, it is talking about its efforts to create an easy and seamless experience between web, app and store-based commerce. Apple's store of the future, on the other hand, include a mini-arboretum for shoppers to peacefully reflect in while they wait for their iPhone screen to be fixed. Estee Lauder's store of the future involves customer lighting and make-up test stations.
It is not a totally meaningless phrase. The common theme to all the "stores of the future" currently under construction across the retail landscape is the centrality of the consumer and the necessity of rebooting the shopping experience. The methods at building that experience are myriad — frictionless, interactivity, mobile connectivity, special events — because as it stands today retail (particularly physical retail in stores) hasn't quite found that silver bullet. There have been advances, but no miracles, unless of course one counts Amazon's continued growth trajectory as miraculous.
Which means a fair summary of action to date would be as follows: There are many stores of the future floating around, but The Store of the Future has not yet come to claim its crown.
And in an open space without a clear winner anointed early, interesting and unusual underdogs have a chance to take the field, and maybe make a big mark.
Underdogs like WithMe, an emerging new retail outfit that has drawn a whole pile of "retailer of the future" headlines among those in the know in retail.
If you haven't heard of WithMe, don't feel too unhip. It's likely that you just aren't in the range of its one permanent location, The Santa Monica Place mall.
Yes, the future of retail might just be in a mall right now, which was probably a plot twist you weren't expecting.
But With Me is a very different experience than one's average trip to the Gap. Consumers use a mobile store app to scan goods that are used to build their dressing room — literally.
The chosen items are moved to a roll out closet, and when the customer (with an app tap) signals the time for the fitting has come, a ring of wool felt curtains descends from the ceiling. This satisfies the twin needs of all shoppers: privacy while dressing, and the illusion that you have wizard-like powers. The insta-dressing rooms come equipped with interactive mirrors that allow shoppers to request additional items to try on.
Because a smart way to convert a customer is to give her a chance to purchase while they are thinking about just how good it makes them look.
The tech enhancements roll out form there. Service kiosks called "Big Dippers" provide product information and checkout stations where consumer can pay with a card and get a receipt. And though the experience is heavily technologically moderated, there is plenty of human customer service, albeit with a high-tech twist. When a customer taps a digital display looking for help, a picture is snapped and sent to the tablet of a roaming sales associate.
They come find you.
But what about those who don't want to talk to a sales associate? Good news, WithMe is ... well, with you on that. For those who prefer their interactions to be as digital as possible, there is the "Reactable" - a feature of their mobile stores - it is a digital table that will make clothing suggestions based on what is place upon it.
We should note that we reached out to a few users who had commented on the Reactable. Both noted that while it was an interesting idea, they found its choices a little bit boring. But then if you really want to march to the beat of your own drum, no problem, there is a virtual reality lounge upstairs that lets customers create a dress or top. Well, a picture of one anyway, but at least they'll email it to you.
The store also makes use of the inventory not currently stocked. Digital displays can be used to access warehouse goods, which can be shipped from.
“Everything can be quickly picked up and moved,” said William Reid, WithMe’s chief operating officer and former director of innovation for PayPal.
“We provide an environment where retailers can rotate in and out and move in and out of shopping centers,” said Brandon Maseda, WithMe’s vice president of retail innovation.
WithMe's story has been one of evolution since its founding as OrderWithMe in 2011 in Hangzhou, China. Its founder, Jonathan Jenkins, was looking to start a firm that gave small merchants a crack at buying merchandise from Chinese factories in bulk to leverage lower prices.
Reid said the store’s various technological concepts have gone through iterations as new portable stores emerged and their permanent retail space now allows them to experiment and learn at an exponentially faster rate. The goal now, says Reid, is to work with the biggest department store brands in the world to help bring the store of the future into the present.
“Now that we have the technology, it is easy to replicate,” Reid said.