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Walkthrough Wednesdays

What-if: Creating a New Retail Experience


Consider me a weekend warrior of the DIY home-improvement world. My projects are likely laughable (in scope and outcome) in the eyes of the professionals, but if that’s the case, they’re not invited to my next barbeque. So there.

Granted, I sometimes experience delusions of grandeur as I envision transforming my fixer-upper into a quaint Sunset magazine-worthy before/after feature. Norm Abramwill never worry about me usurping his reputation, but I like fixing things when they break and looking at something I’ve improved and knowing I did it.

I can swing a hammer and even use a tile saw, but most projects involve a lot of learning and asking questions along the way. Sometimes that’s a bit of a process – finding the answers I need or the people who have them.

Confession: Last time I went to one of those DIY meccas, I stood in the plumbing aisle gesturing and trying to describe “you know, the thing that bends like this and connects like that?” Unfortunately, I was talking to the paint guy because the plumbing guy was sick that day. He shrugged. I went to another store.

What if… when the vastness of parts and pieces in the plumbing aisle eventually overwhelmed me, I could turn to a kiosk with a touch-screen display I could use to navigate to “install new faucet.” It would show me a list of parts and tools I’d need, plus video demonstrations of how to actually accomplish the task without flooding the kitchen. I could print the parts list, instructions, and a link to the video. Or I could send the video to my e-mail or phone to watch again at home. (Psst… Step 1: Turn off the water under the sink.)

What if… that same demo tool was accessible to store employees over the wireless network on tablet devices or smartphones. An employee (we’ll call him Wes) could quickly navigate to a demo and walk me through it, then help me find the products and send the installation instructions to a nearby network printer. If something was out of stock, he could search the inventory system to find it at a nearby store and IM one of their staff to hold it for me, or let me know when his store would have it in stock.

What if... I needed a special-order product – a really fancy kitchen faucet, perhaps? Wes could use his tablet to access the network and walk me through the options and a product video. Even better, working over the store’s secure wi-fi network, he could take my order, enter my credit-card information, and have it shipped to the store or to my house. He could forward me the tracking information and receipt — right then and there. I wouldn’t have to find the special-order desk in the corner of the store or go home and find the product on the web.

I think I’m liking this store.

What if... I have questions? The people who owned my house before me did some pretty wacky things and I’m consistently encountering oddness that needs to be remedied. Those situations bring up specific questions that cross the eyes and confound the imaginations of your typical hardware store generalist. Wouldn’t it be great if I could click my heels three times and summon an expert to magically appear and field my questions? Indeed it would. It worked for Dorothy Gale, but I’m fresh out of red shoes.

Wes could magically summon that expert using that oh-so-handy business-class tablet device. He could search the store’s enterprise social network to find the plumbing experts. Presence indicators would show him that Jackie was available by phone, but Dan was available over video. He could initiate a video chat with Dan, then hand me the device and so I could ask my questions directly in a face-to-face conversation.

Dan might be in another store or he might be at a call center in another state. Even better, he could be in a central demonstration center and where he could use a real sink to show me what to do over the video connection. Dan could e-mail links to relevant online demos or instructions that I could review at home.

Before I leave the store, I head over to the nursery to ask about a shrub in my yard. I brought a branch so I could show it to someone to find out what it is. No one in the store knows what it is, so they bring in another expert over video. Bad news, it’s poison oak. Good news, at least the remote guy won’t be itching for a week.

If I’d provided my e-mail address at any point, the store could send me a survey asking about my experience. At this point, I’m thinking they’d get good marks.

The second best-part of this scenario? It could apply to nearly any retail outlet – an auto parts store, home electronics, groceries, clothing… It’s basically the customer-service desk – in a portable form. While I’m in a shopping mode, let’s round out this trip. I could…

  • Go to the auto parts store and get advice on which type of motor oil is best for my vehicle and driving conditions
  • Head over to the home-electronics place to buy that new Blu-Ray player and have the salesperson bring up a picture of the back of my TV to show me which of those myriad plugs to use
  • Stop at the grocery store and have a sommelier provide wine recommendations for my mother’s famous spam/sauerkraut/biscuit casserole
  • (Don’t get me started on the potential for fashion advice. It’s a good thing they can use the department store’s wireless network – the mobile data charges over a 3G/4G network would be astronomical for my wardrobe improvement.)

But here’s the best part of this scenario. It’s not a figment of my imagination except that I haven’t encountered it in real life — yet. The technology exists. Mobile tablet devices. Smartphones. Secure access over the wireless network to inventory, phone and video communications, messaging, point-of-sale systems, etc. An application with messaging, presence, and integration with the enterprise phone network. Interactive networked digital signage that provides access to the same collaboration, communications and Web applications. Check. Check. And Check.

“What if” could be now.

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In fact, this week at the largest digital signage show of the year, Digital Signage Expo, Cisco will be demoing some of these new capabilities. A Cisco digital sign can become an interactive display, for consumers in the store to access a full range of collaboration applications and rich media content. This same content can also be delivered to any mobile collaboration device or smartphone, extending the shopping experience closer to the customer and increasing their engagement while in the store. From a single endpoint, customers and employees can browse store inventory, consult a second opinion by visiting Web applications such as product review sites, and conduct digital transactions, reserving a product at another branch if it’s out of stock locally.

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