Could dancing pandas persuade you to buy new sports shoes?

By Nicola K Smith
Technology of Business reporter

  • Published
Screengrab of game showing pandas and runnerImage source, Nike
Image caption,
In Nike's game a cartoon version of the shopper runs through a virtual landscape

Retailers are adopting a range of new technologies to help make the shopping experience more fun and interactive. But will this be enough to slow the High Street's demise and Amazon's remorseless advance?

Would watching a cartoon version of yourself leaping over aeroplanes and buildings, and encountering dancing pandas on a huge screen, convince you to buy a new sports shoe?

Sports clothing giant Nike thinks so.

It developed a way of inserting lookalike digital versions of customers into a virtual environment called Reactland. Customers run on a treadmill wearing the firm's new React shoe while watching themselves in the game.

Launched in Shanghai, China, last year, Nike has rolled out the experience in stores globally, with more installations planned for this year, including in Taiwan, Berlin and Dubai.

"The key element, from a consumer perspective, was to create deep personalisation by building game avatars that look just like the player," says Yifei Chai, creative director at Unit9, one of the creative agencies involved in the project.

"From a brand point of view, the game helps players understand the uniqueness of the Nike React shoe in a suitably playful and memorable way."

Image source, Nike
Image caption,
In Reactland you can leap over the Sphinx in your new trainers

This is what's known as "experiential" marketing - making shopping more interactive and entertaining.

"At the heart of retail's ongoing transformation is a shift in focus from the point of sale to the point of experience," says Scott Clarke, chief digital officer at tech consultancy Cognizant.

"Immersive retail experiences are still one of the few realities that retailers can perform better than Amazon."

Augmented reality (AR) - overlaying digital imagery onto the real world - is a key technology in this trend.

Last year, Adidas launched its X18 football boot to tie in with the Fifa World Cup. Working with design consultancy Fitch, Adidas created an experiential campaign in 70 retail stores in 22 countries.

Shoppers could point an iPad at an image then "view product videos and explore the boot's technical specifications, which helped them understand the product better and make their final purchase choice easier," explains Des Tapaki, digital director at Fitch.

Image source, Adidas
Image caption,
Augmented reality can bring inanimate objects, like football boots, to life

"We found that once they started the activation, a very large number of consumers were immersed in the experience and interacted with all pieces of content."

AR is also valuable in helping retailers showcase their growing product catalogues in-store, and is even being used in supermarkets to help encourage healthy eating.

Take Biedronka, for example, Poland's largest discount supermarket chain. In 2017, the retailer introduced floor stickers throughout the store that could be scanned by a smartphone to unlock a group of virtual vegetable characters called the ''Goodness Gang''.

"A core objective was to liven up shopping and promote healthy eating and choices," says Malcolm Fogarty, global digital and innovation director at TCC Global, the retail marketing specialist that helped Biedronka with the project.

"AR was the perfect way to achieve both of these goals. Finding the AR codes brings an element of a treasure hunt to the weekly shop, but the placement of the codes ensures shoppers are driven to the categories that are most relevant to the campaign.

"In this case, that's fruit and vegetables."

Image source, Biedronka
Image caption,
Biedronka's Goodness Gang characters were designed to encourage healthier eating

The Goodness Gang AR app has been downloaded 1.5 million times to date after being launched with several major European retailers, including Lidl Ireland and the UK's Co-Operative Group.

Sales at the retailers they have worked with have increased 3%-to-5% over the campaign periods, says Mr Fogarty.

And this is the main point. In-store games and experiences are not just about keeping shoppers coming through the doors rather than ordering online, it's about selling more product.

Barclaycard research from October 2017 found that retailers who hosted events and provided entertainment in physical stores could boost their annual turnover by an average of 14%.

Tech-based experiential marketing also presents opportunities for retailers to capture today's golden currency - customer data.

For example, Nike's in-store Trial Zone Basketball areas give consumers the chance to test shoes while doing practice moves as cameras capture their moves. Staff - or "in-store athletes" - monitor the performance and advise on the best shoe.

"Performance data is collected via digital displays and sensors around the stores that customers can later access via the Nike Plus app or online too," says Laura Wynch, co-founder of retail technology consultancy, Validify.

"As well as creating an immersive experience, and bridging the online with the offline, they are collating huge amounts of data to deliver up individual product recommendations and advice to their customers."

Trying on clothes in cramped, harshly lit changing rooms can be a stressful business.

So fashion retailer, Rebecca Minkoff, has introduced interactive mirrors in the changing rooms of its flagship New York store. Customers can order items in a different size or colour and change lighting schemes and backgrounds with just a few taps of the glass.

Image source, Rebecca Minkoff
Image caption,
Fashion entrepreneur Rebecca Minkoff shows off one of her interactive mirrors

"This removes significant friction for the customer as they don't need to go through the rigmarole of getting changed and having to try and find something else they like," says Martin Newman from ecommerce consultancy, Practicology.

"This has increased sales and conversion in-store by 30%."

Winter clothing retailer Canada Goose has gone a step further, installing small "cold rooms" in a number of its stores where customers can try on jackets surrounded by ice sculptures in temperatures as low as -25C.

But could all these tech-based experiences become simply a gimmick?

Validify's Laura Wynch warns: "Technology isn't, and shouldn't, be seen as a silver bullet for retailers' problems. Retailers must first figure out who their customer is, what they value in their brand, and how can they deliver the best possible customer experience.

"The customer should drive tech adoption - not the other way around."