The future of shopping: What happens when walls start talking


If only these walls could talk, the saying goes. In the case of the N building near Tachikawa station in Japan they do. In fact the whole building facade has been transformed into a real time dialogue between smart phones and what’s going on inside the store. All you do is hold your phone up to the walls and the constantly changing QR codes tell you what’s going on inside. You can also browse shop information, make reservations and download coupons.

As unconventional as this seems now,  it could be the beginning a new wave of dialogue between people and their environment (let’s call it e-dialogue for e-commerce). This is a big deal for business owners and marketers. We have already seen the shift from static billboards to digital billboards in cities like LA, and Japanese designers are hoping to release billboards that actually watch consumers shop and adjust the advertising to match their demographics in real time (very Minority Report). What’s more, Google will soon be introducing real time adverts mapped into real world posters viewed within Google Streetview. (For more on the latest digital billboards check out this post by Jeremiah Owyang.)

Such QR code wallscapes are the next iteration of an increasingly sophisticated ongoing dialogue emerging between customers, stores and products. Marry this with the fact that more stores are accepting virtual currencies in exchange for real products (South Korea – yes, China – no) and mobile payments (see Starbucks) and the future of retail looks very different from today.

So just for fun, let’s imagine what this future might look like:

Imagine cities in which almost every retail wall surface is engaged in tailor-made, real time discussion with the customers walking nearby.

Imagine customers instinctively checking in throughout their day to earn points that can be traded for real world products or to receive coupons/offers specific to where they are. (For more on digital coupons see Stowe Boyd here.)

Imagine cities populated by geo-tagged digital information that reveals floating, real-time augmented reality advertisements viewed through smart phones? (There’s an overview of recent AR applications here.)

Imagine billboards that watch you shop and make targeted suggestions based on your age, location and  past buying habits.

Scary stuff perhaps but this could change retail marketing in several ways:

Stores will effectively be turned inside out as dialogue and personalized interaction with customers begins outside the store (unlike current broad-based billboard advertising).

Shop floor space will essentially be expanded to inhabit the air around a stores with the sale beginning at street level and the store inside closing the deal.

Traditional demarcations of how stores own retail or advertising space will have to be rethought much like airspace.

As location, category or brand specific digital languaging develops, marketers will have to consider how to attract customers to the language of their brand community and then how to hold on to them.

Some or all of this may come true. Or maybe marketers won’t put money into ads that require you to view them through your phone? One thing is sure. Marketers will have to tread very carefully so they don’t overwhelm a customer’s every waking moment with an appeal to their virtual pocketbook. To that end marketers stay up to speed with the latest technology but always consider the customer experience first. Here are three useful rules to remember:

Technology is not an end in itself.

Emotion is the currency we trade.

Serve the customer before the product.

Does this shopping future scare you? Do you think it’s realistic? What else do you see happening?