Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Future of Shopping Online

Earlier this week, many a nerd saw that a dream might be coming true; Nike announced it was going to sell a limited number of "Back to the Future" shoes.  For those not in-the-know, these are the shoes that Marty McFly wears in the second installment of the series.  What makes these futuristic Nikes so nerd-worthy is that they mold and adjust to the wearer's feet with the touch of a button.  How cool is that?  While the version released this week still requires lacing "the old way," it still brings us one step closer to the 'future' we all pictured in that movie.

As we move closer to a future filled with re-hydrators and self-lacing shoes, I wonder how we will obtain those items.  Will we go to a store in a mall?  Will we order them online and have them delivered?  Will we be able to shop from our TV?  Maybe we will just be able to think about the item and it will show up the next day.  Regardless of how shopping will look in the future, it's pretty evident that shopping today is in dire need of a makeover.

At the start of the 20th century, downtown areas were the prime shopping venue.  Department stores were massive buildings that contained everything from shovels to stockings to sofas.  Smaller boutiques dotted the streets, window dressings enticing the passersby.  After the war, the automobile not only decreased foot traffic in urban cores, it also decreased the population as families fled to suburbia.  Another 20 years brought shopping malls and strip malls, and another 20 years beyond that brought the big-box-megaplex.

As the internet evolved from educational information sharing to public use, companies were quick to capitalize on the extra exposure.  It was thought that creating electronic versions of a mall was a smart move.  But how else can you be certain to get the best deal?  Comparison shopping engines - view one product  at all the stores online where you can buy it.  Since then we have seen familiar stores open up digital storefronts, as well as mobile sites and other innovations keeping pace with technology.

The one area where all of this technology is lagging, however, is bridging the gap between site and store.  Walmart offers a service that lets a customer order a product online and pick it up in a local store.  Nordstrom offers a similar service that will search the entire national inventory to display in the ecommerce site.  These are fantastic ways to close the gap, and it seems that many of the pieces already exist.  The challenge now is how to connect all of the pieces for a seamless experience.

For the near future, I envision a more connected experience for shopping.  Store inventory will be available to the customer on the website.  If I choose to go pick it up at a store, I will know that the product will be waiting for me.  If I want the product delivered, it will be sent to me regardless of where it lives in the store's supply.  If I search for the product on Google Shopping or PriceGrabber, the inventory will be real time, avoiding any consumers being misled by outdated product feed inventory and pricing.

Taking this one step further, smartphones will play an increasingly important part in the shopping process.  Google Goggles technology can be advanced to assist with finding products online (perhaps this is why Google purchased  Product searches can return Local Search results in stores nearby, preferably only showing those stores with inventory in stock.  Perhaps technology can be advanced and integrated to the point that you can make the purchase from your phone and then go pick it up in-store by waving your phone at the cash register to call up your receipt.

Technology is not only changing the experience for shoppers, it is also changing the entire nature of the way companies do business.  The internet gives equal footing to companies of varying sizes.  In addition to shopping advancements many technologies are changing on the payment side of the equation as well.  Google is dipping its toes into the near-field-communication arena with Google Wallet.  Several companies are experimenting with alternatives to credit card processing.  American Express even developed its own PayPal-like service.  In brick-and-mortar stores, small businesses are already embracing some of these payment technologies such as Square and LevelUp.  Google is already experimenting with inventory values in Product Search.  As these enhancements converge and morph, it will be very interesting to see just how many of these "futuristic" ideas become as real as the "Back to the Future" shoes.

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