The pace of change in retailing over the past 20 years has been breathtaking. In the prior 100 years the innovation all seemed to be around catalog shopping and building shops closer together. At the same time the trend that continues today began--of replacing skilled and product savvy specialist staff with whoever is happy to work for minimum wage. And still today, for many of us the physical shopping experience is horrible. Being followed around the store and being asked inane "helpful" questions is the surest way to get me heading for the exit. Why would I seek out the advice of someone who most likely has less than 6 months' tenure at the store (attrition rates in retail routinely top 200%)? Thankfully, from listening intently to a range of industry experts at events including the excellent ShopTalk I have some glimmers of hope to share that should improve both online and offline shopping.

Shoe shopping will get easier

Aldo, a well-known international shoe retailer is currently putting the finishing touches to a new platform to assist their sales staff to help you. I was walked through the tremendous success of the trial period by Kinetic Cafe, their technology partner who have recently completed a 40 store trial. Linking to their mobile app, they are able to identify who you are when you walk in and what you've bought before in their store, and all the great qualitative data that can accompany that. They will take this information to help you with recommendations and find things that are in your size in store today or nearby. The next part though really got me excited. I've never been able to work out by staring at a small mirror on the floor if the new shoes will work with all the other outfits I am not wearing today. Enter here an ability for the retailer to share with you a lookbook of the shoe--answering the "does this work with jeans / suit / shorts?" types of question, straight from their tablet/POS system. Retailers are already spending a lot of time on a lot of great content for their online presence that is rarely available in store. Aldo is really pushing this, with a range of ingenious visualizations to get you into the store and inspire you in there. So both the customer and the retailer will spend less time asking unnecessary questions and shoppers will either be in and out more efficiently or will increase their spend. But just as importantI believe is that the sales staff will have a more fulfilling day, being able to help more effectively. This should reduce staff churn, and hopefully increase their ROI when bricks and mortar retailer are preparing tactics to handle higher minimum wages eating into profits.

Online shopping will become a lot smarter

I was lucky enough to sit through a fantastic presentation by RJ Pittman, Chief Product Officer at eBay. He documented the huge recent improvements in artificial intelligence, predominantly driven by the growth of inexpensive processing power in the cloud and natural language processing innovations through the likes of Siri and Cortana. The point of his presentation was that we will soon be able to state to our computers things like (with apologies to RJ) "my wife and I are going camping together for the first time in Lake Tahoe next month." If you think about how today you might inform eBay or Google or whatever search tool you shop with you'd probably start with inputting "two-man tent." While you will likely need one, you've already lost the context--man and wife, summer camping in the US countryside at altitude. All of that rich information could be used to help you prepare for the things you don't know--like cooking at altitude requires different cooking times, offer the right weights of tent and sleeping bag for your specific needs, and so on. So we are promised that our experience is soon to get faster, more complete and for the retailers again this should lead to larger baskets, fewer returns, the promised land.

Clothes will fit better

Recent innovations in all things 3D offer some really exciting opportunities. First of all, we should soon be able to create and share our real physical dimensions with retailers. We will be able to leverage emerging dual lens cellphone cameras to provide a complete blueprint of our shapes. Everyone, no matter how close to proportional, will benefit from understanding the shopping patterns of what I heard described as our physical doppelgangers. Seeing what people who are shaped like you are buying can really help. Of course all of this progress cannot be capitalized on while we continue to be offered clothes in limited ranges of standard sizes. What we are seeing todayis the move towards creating short run, custom clothing. Even for things like socks, underwear, t-shirts, getting a better fit can help both sides - happier and more loyal customers and better inventory management for the manufacturers. The manufacturing end will need to evolve even faster than it is today, but things like emerging 3D clothes knitting machines could really liberate us. While unit costs undoubtedly will increase, ending margin-killing returns and discounted stock will strip waste out of the way current manufacturing is done.

Make yourself part of the success of the brands you love

I really enjoyed learning about the success of BetaBrand, where they have come up with a fun crowdfunding design model. It feels like they have taken some of the ideas from made.com over to fashion. Both mainstream retail brands such as Timberland as well as home designers get the chance to post product ideas. Assuming the design gets enough pre-orders (the crowdfunding angle) they then are produced. It does feel that the majority of successful ideas are coming from full-time designers. The other cool thing BetaBrand are doing is getting their fans to upload images of themselves in their BetaBrand clothes--both for fun and for discounts. Their website is then filled with the best of them. Were you always sure you could have made it as a model? Do you do a great "blue steel"? Let BetaBrand help you answer that.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the future of retail is paved with pretty exciting innovations. The ball game now is no longer just about which brands can come up with great products. They will also need to lead the way in offering a truly relevant digital experience that resonates well with retail customers in terms of value, satisfaction and engagement. The two-fold challenge for retailers now is to evolve their knowledge of technology and expand their understanding of customer needs in the light of these new tech, and pursue opportunities where these two can bring in serious, sustainable business.

Published on: May 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.