As online shopping is growing more dominant by the day and brick-and-mortar commerce is increasingly beset on all sides by falling foot traffic, diminishing sales and waning consumer interest, creating the ideal customer experience has become retail’s favored buzzword.
But the part that gets tricky is knowing exactly what that entails. Because, as Healey Cypher, founder and CEO of Oak Labs, told Karen Webster in a recent conversation, retail hasn’t actually had to do something new in a quite awhile.
“We’re seeing now, for the first time in the modern history of the space, this massive shift within retail and where its future is going. The problem is: These are stores that haven’t changed in 100 years, and now, it feels like customers are changing every 100 minutes,” Cypher observed.
The rapidly shifting landscape, Cypher noted, is a the direct outcome of the great digital/physical convergence made possible by the power of mobile. Oak Labs wants to help physical retailers navigate that convergence and is best known for its flagship product, the Oak Mirror.
The smart mirror technology, designed for dressing rooms, lets customers contact an associate for another size, see recommended other options or just customize the dressing room they are in by adjusting the lighting.
But while they love the mirror at Oak Labs, they’d rather not be known as “the mirror guys,” because, Cypher noted, the scope of the product goes far beyond a single piece of enabling technology.
“We didn’t get into this business with a burning desire to build the greatest mirror in history. There is a myth that online has better data than the physical world and always will. That’s just wrong. The physical world has lots of data. The problem is that it’s never gathered, and so, it is not instrumented. Our technology is about gathering insights that have never been gathered before and then drawing actionable insights. And a lot of what we have seen has been incredible.”
Oak Labs thinks that its tech, like the mirror, combined with its burgeoning operating system (Oak OS), are just the tools to bridge that gap.
The Magic Of The Mirror
While Oak Mirror isn’t all Oak Labs does or aspires to do, it is the focal point the team started with. Cypher — like many of the founding players from Oak — is an eBay refugee who decided to leave the company during the great restructuring also known as PayPal’s spinoff.
The team that went on to become Oak Labs had been in early discussions of something like the interactive mirror in their ending days at eBay and, Healey noted, determined after they left that they were “onto something cool.”
So, they did what innovators do: reimagined the interactive mirror concept and then rebuilt it from the ground up.
“Our guiding principle is that you should never do tech for the sake of tech — do it for people. Also, there is so much out there. It is really hard to know where to start as a retailer. There are a zillion things going on with so many offerings.”
Oak Lab’s offering, however, has the benefit of being able to show some pretty impressive results behind it. After a year of observing the tech in action in 13 stores in 17 nations, it is hard to argue that the mirror isn’t working its magic.
“The mirrors have completely blown away our expectations for how much customers will use them and how much associates like them. Also, the metric we see most clearly going up is dollars per minute per square foot,” Cypher confirmed.
And consumers really do use them. According to the data, when given the option, they will opt to meaningfully interact with the mirror at least once (to call an associate, ask for a recommendation or change the lights), and they’ll do so at least 84 percent of the time.
Yep, 84 percent of the time.
They also buy more often. According to Oak Lab’s data, the average lift in basket size is 59 percent. Increased conversion — customers who bought who otherwise might not have — is harder to measure, but some “back of the envelope” math indicates an uptick of around 10 percent.
And while those improvements to the customer experience are desirable — and good news for retailers’ bottom lines — the kind of data Oak Labs can gather and use can do more than just incrementally increase spend.
The Power Of Real-Time Data
“We aren’t trying to create new use cases. We’re trying to find existing ones and make them better,” Cypher noted. “Tools can make associates way more effective.”
The power of gathering data in real time, he noted, is that it gives retailers the power to make observations they just haven’t been able to in the past. Items that are shelved in the back of the store that are getting a lot of traction — i.e., lots of consumers are trying them on and then buying them — can be moved forward. Items that aren’t selling can be explained better. Cypher gave the example of the sweater that customers keep trying on but never buying.
“In the past, retailers don’t know why an item isn’t selling. They assume consumers didn’t like the design. We can show them: No, they didn’t like the design, but the fit was wrong so no one bought it once they tried it on.”
And though the mirror is one product it sells to gather data and feed it through the company’s various systems, it isn’t the only product. It offers stockroom applications with smart shelving designed to be associate-facing instead of consumer-facing.
“There is a common thread in all these beautiful experiences: make it easier for a retailer to do a lot of things from a single point,” Cypher explained. “There is this whole new wave of input technology. Customers don’t see it, they don’t know it is there, but when they walk in the store, it is easy, and they find what they want.”
And holding all that input technology is the Oak Operating System, which ties it all together.
One Operating System To Rule Them All
Apart from providing a hardware suite to gather data, Oak’s bigger vision is its semi-open operating system that allows all of these various store systems to communicate and create actionable data insights.
“We are experts at pulling in retail data: online data, inventory data , CRM data, POS data. We then want to SDK that and then build on top of it. Then, when we put our machines in a store — a mirror, an interactive shelf — those devices come alive. Those machines also form an independent network.”
And by building that operating system in an accessible fashion, Cypher noted, it not only creates an opportunity to build tools for its retail partners, but it also gives its partners the opportunity to build their own customized applications to further leverage the data the system creates.
Because the trick, according to Cypher and Oak Labs, isn’t finding the data in physical retailers — the data is there and different from anything else out there. The challenge is finding a way to usefully marshal all of it and make it useful.
But if 10,000 years of evolution has proven anything, it is that human beings love looking in the mirror. If one is trying to form a habit, there are worse places to have started.