DigitasLBi Labs, the agency’s tech incubator in Paris, has built an in-store shopping assistant that uses image recognition software and Bluetooth low-energy beacons to match, recommend, and display possible additions to a shopper’s wardrobe. The group developed the “inspiration corridor” in conjunction with Klépierre, a French real estate company that operates malls across the country, and has installed the prototype in one of the real estate firm’s shopping centers in suburban Paris.
The project comes as brick-and-mortar retailers — and the real estate companies which own and operate the malls that house them — struggle to combat falling foot traffic as consumers opt for an improved, and more ubiquitous online shopping experience. Last week, executives at Staples, for example, said that the company planned to close 225 stores across North America in an attempt to trim costs as it shifted focus to a growing ecommerce business.
When retail foot traffic dipped during the recession, many analysts believed that brick-and-mortar sales would strengthen as the economy improved. But underlying that dip, there appears to have been a deeper change in consumer behavior. According to data from ShopperTrak published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, total retail foot traffic dropped by 14.6% in 2013, marking a third consecutive year of double-digit declines.
However, the shift from desktop to mobile devices could help turn the tables for local sellers. Vincent Druguet, the deputy general manager at DigitasLBi Labs, who leads the project, says that mobility has created a renewed opportunity for retailers to not only to compete online, but also to bring the web to the physical stores in a way that exceeds the online-only experience.
“Malls are facing a big issue in Europe and the U.S. as footfall declines due in part to the growth of ecommerce, so we’re trying to figure out how to to mix the abilities of online and the benefit of offline,” said Druguet. “If you can bring and merge the capabilities of online commerce in personalization, with the pleasure of touching and feeling a product, you’re going to win the game.”
The prototype, which the agency plans to test in a number of French malls over the next few months, offers a fascinating glimpse into the uncertain future of offline retail. Positioned at the entrance of the mall, the small enclosure is lined with touchscreen displays and fitted with body scanning technology and Bluetooth beacons, which can sync with a user’s smartphone.
When a shopper enters the corridor, the system uses a technology built by a French startup to scan their body, identifying their height, age, gender and color of your clothes. Within a few seconds, the system matches those attributes with inventory from the stores within the mall, and displays a recommendation for the user on the screen. If a user wants to buy a particular product, they can have the product information sent to the mall’s existing application via a Bluetooth beacon, and the app can guide the user to the store which sells the product.
For Digitas, the system remains more prototype than product. The hardware is costly, and overall there is no clear path to market for the system. But Druguet is optimistic that the product could find its way into mainstream adoption, particularly for mall operators like Klépierre. He says that there’s a real opportunity for these firms to develop incremental revenues as well, selling sponsored recommendations in the same way that Google sells paid search ads.
In its current form, the system might not last. But it offers a glimpse into a world in which technology, and the web, plays a central role in the way goods and services are bought and sold in the real world.
However, that future will likely not include the centralized shopping model which took root in the U.S. and across the world over the past century. Malls, and the big box stores, which succeeded them, largely functioned as a physical solution to an information problem: lump everything into one location, and a consumer can trust that she can find anything that she needs in one place. But when the innards of a store can be accessed remotely, and searched instantly, the value of having everything in one place is lessened.
What’s even more important is the impact which an in-store recommendation system like this could have on the job prospects of the 4 million-plus retail sales employees in the U.S. Retail salespeople have already seen the number of jobs diminish as retailers move online, but in-store recommendation and navigation technologies — whether as a standalone installation or more likely, through a mobile application — could dramatically reduce the the number of sales people needed per square foot at an existing store.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.