Is This the Future of Retail?
Sick of that Gap clerk telling you to buy those jeans? You may never have to deal with her again.
Meet the prototype for a new type of store. SHOPBOX, the newest addition to DeKalb Market, a temporary mall in Brooklyn comprised of shipping containers, has its products on display—with no sales clerks to be found.
Shoppers register on iPads attached to the bright green, orange and white container. Want to buy something? Text message your order. The products are then shipped directly to customers' homes.
"It's like a vending machine," said Luke Schantz, who engineered SHOPBOX so lighting and moving displays could be controlled remotely by computer.
Could this be the future of shopping?
Purchasing products via cell phone is popular in other countries, but hasn't yet gained traction in the United States, said Will Robison, whose company, Subports, developed the program for SHOPBOX to order via text message. Robison cites a grocery store in South Korea that created virtual stores in the subway where customers could scan QR codes and have their groceries delivered to them at home—without ever having to set foot in a "real" grocery store.
Part of the goal, Robison said, is to make the shopping experience less mundane.
"We come up with retail experiments—different ways to incorporate technology and retail," Robison said. "Processing an order is a mundane task, and we're trying to make that interesting."
SHOPBOX, with its bold green, orange, and white container and an explainer video-on-loop built in on the side, is intriguing. The products that the store offers will change, but for the first phase, Jeffrey Opdyke, 3rd Ward's retail director, decided to stick close to home (and make a play off the shipping container exterior) with a "Made in America + Shipping to America" theme. The products range from Whifle Balls ($4), to a designer steel table ($600), to a 3-D printer (up to $2,500). The result is part technological wonder, part modern-history display of American craftsmanship.
Aware that people may be hesitant to register on an iPad in public, Robison has a plan in the works to turn the system more into a mobile shopping cart, where an account wouldn't be needed, but a user could text products in from their phone and then, later, go to their shopping cart and check out with Paypal or Google checkout.
"Another roadblock people think its charging their cell phone bill, but it's not," Robsion said. "We need to teach people and educate them that its very safe, probably safer than buying on wifi because going over a cell network and sending a code—not your bank information every time you buy something."
Paco Underhill, a retail analyst and the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, worries that the biggest threat to a venture like SHOPBOX being successful is the factor of the "malevolent 9 year old" who could easily destroy pricey equipment like an iPad.
"If we look at the application of the iPad, one of the ways in which in the U.S. market successful when the iPad is under the control of a sales associate, a waiter or a wine sommelier, and they hand you the iPad or they work the iPad with you," Underhill said.
Underhill, does, however, see converged shopping—where buyers pre-shop online, go see the product in person, and then make the final purchase on a smartphone—in our near future. And technology that makes convergence easier is helping people like Robison think outside of the SHOPBOX. He sees the possibility for stores that could fit into nooks and crannies—even displayed on lampposts.
"It's just a box displaying an object. A store doesn’t have to be this thing that you rent on a monthly basis," Robison said. "It could be placed anywhere and be completely interesting, almost like a piece of art but selling something at the same time."