The London Eye is probably the right place for blue sky thinking, and there is a lot of it going on as the capsule dangles over a sun-kissed, picture-postcard London. A group of retail entrepreneurs are brainstorming about how their industry will look in 30 years' time as the ferris wheel spins, and it's enough to make you dizzy: online shopping done without lifting a finger and changing-room mirrors with a hotline to your best friend. The future is so bright, we're going to need (Google Glass) shades.
With the hyperbolic title 30/30 Vision, the event has the hallmarks of a Sir Richard Branson stunt and indeed it is part of a series being run by the business-to-business arm of Virgin Media – with the carrot of an audience with the leonine entrepreneur himself. But it has a serious undercurrent as technology rewrites the rulebook for traditional high street retailers, who are being forced to reinvent themselves in a digital age.
"The last 30 years have seen dramatic developments in how businesses operate and interact with their customers, not least the enormous possibilities generated by the internet and digital technology," Branson told a hushed audience of entrepreneurs back on terra firma. With clever ideas ranging from 3D-printed fashion accessories to theft-proof backpacks, "imagination and enthusiasm" would help shape their industries in the coming decades, he said.
"Consumers are setting the pace, they are very engaged and pick up on things quicker," added Alison Lancaster, interim marketing director at McArthurGlen, who chaired the retail debate. "These small companies are important because as technology evolves it's hard for big companies to be agile and fluid – which is why we are seeing a lot of retailers setting up tech incubators." Among the key trends to emerge were:
VOICE OPERATED SHOPPING APPS
"Tesco, I want the same shopping as last week and I want it delivered on Thursday at 9pm." If only buying your groceries online was as easy as barking an order at your phone.
Mark Loosemore, commercial director of "voice assistant" technology firm Capito Systems, thinks it soon will be. "This is very, very new but we think this technology has quite broad applications," he says. "We find that young people are much quicker to have a go than perhaps people who grew up with a desktop."
With Siri, the iPhone's inbuilt personal assistant, many Britons have already started to use voice-operated software every day. But Capito's software is specifically designed for mobile commerce, with the company recently creating an app for bookmaker Paddy Power ahead of the World Cup. The Go Brazil Nuts app lets you "bet by voice" without having to input details by hand.
Loosemore believes the technology will simplify shopping online, particularly for those who find inputting bank card details on their phone fiddly and frustrating. The company, which raised seed capital from private investors in 2013, has also received funding from the government's Technology Strategy Board. "A lot of people struggle to find what they want quickly and easily on an app and often don't complete a transaction," adds Loosemore. "For people who don't like or struggle to input information we think speaking to an app is an awful lot easier."
DIGITAL WALK-IN STORES
With a website now de rigueur for retailers, the industry is looking for the next generation of sites. One version of the future is websites that use high definition panoramic images to bring the three-dimensional store experience to your mobile or laptop. "It's not like a video game," explains Nicolas Rossi, chief executive of London based start-up Avenue Imperial. "Our website makes the online shopping experience more immersive than the flat, catalogue-style e-commerce we have all got used to."
With the click of a mouse, customers are able to virtually "walk" through the store, zooming in on products they like or taking a picture that instantly connects them with staff in the store, who can advise on whether the product is available and arrange payment and shipping. The company is the brainchild of Rossi, a former derivatives trader, and tech industry veteran Julian Ball.
"Virtual shopping" websites are likely to appeal to luxury goods companies, which spend millions of pounds creating high street temples for their brands, and will enable well-heeled shoppers in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Los Angeles to browse stores in Paris, London or Milan without leaving their homes.
"The quality of the technology and imagery we have developed over the past 12 months is outstanding and really pushes the boundaries of online shopping expectations," said Ball. "We are starting with fashion and see a future for galleries, furniture stores and specialist shops – anything with a unique offer and store experience to share."
INTERNET CHALLENGER BRANDS
The internet has levelled the playing field for big and small companies, with the latter able to reach wider audiences than ever before. "The beauty of the internet is you have more opportunities to get to consumers. Before, the only way to do that was to be listed by one of the big four supermarkets," says James Ecclestone, managing director and owner of the Grown Up Chocolate Company.
With names like "fruit and nut hunky dory" and "crunchy praline wonder bar" the London company's chocolate bars are reminiscent of childhood treats, but with an adult twist. "In many ways the consumer is doing the innovating because they are getting in touch on social media and telling us what they want," he adds. "If 2,000 of our Twitter followers tell us they want a cherry and coconut bar we can respond and then show retailers the demand for our product." The quirky brand has recently been listed by internet grocer Ocado but Ecclestone also points to smaller, local delivery networks such as Hubbub, which are helping it – and brands like it – to widen their distribution.
"Does my bum look big in this?" It's an age-old question, but imagine you were standing in front of a mirror that your best friend could log on to and give you instant feedback. "Retailers haven't capitalised on social shopping yet," says High Spirit co-founder Joshua Okungbaiye. "Everyone yearns for a second opinion from people we trust. When my sister is on Asos she is sharing stuff with her friends all the time. Imagine if she was shopping for a dress and her friend could tell her straight away 'you need that dress. Your ex is going to be at that party and you want him to want you back'."
Although it is a pipe dream at the moment, Branson was enthusiastic: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, I love it, I think you should get on and do it."
Lots of retailers are already playing with offering interactive technologies in store.
Earlier this year, Japanese chain Urban Research let shoppers play a grown-up game of Paper Doll with a screen that used augmented reality to map their body shape, enabling them to try on hundreds of outfits without even taking their coats off. In a similar vein, Superdrug's new Cardiff store features an interactive mirror that lets customers try out different hairstyles, and a large interactive screen where customers can take "selfies" and share them on social media.
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