Digital hits the aisles

Interactive tech is beginning to seep into retail spaces, merging the brick and mortar experience with the efficiency of online navigation to create new media platforms.

Every year Mike Kasprow, VP, CD and co-founder of Toronto-based interactive marketing agency Trapeze, travels to the Microsoft Research Design Expo – a forum where top design schools display students’ prototype interaction-design ideas – where he volunteers as co-chair and creative director. A regular fixture is the Home of the Future, an “in beta residence” that’s constantly updated with cutting-edge tech. Years ago, says Kasprow, one particular feature was a mirror that, using image recognition, would allow a person to hold up a shirt and automatically access an inventory of all the pants they own, showing which ones would match.
“If you think about that kind of utility in a store, you’re increasing your basket size,” says Kasprow. “Embedded technologies in retail and branded spaces give you the opportunity to connect in a way that’s convenient and useful to
[the customer].”
And the Home of the Future is arriving in stores soon. In January, Adidas unveiled its interactive adiVerse Virtual Footwear Wall at the 2011 National Retail Federation’s convention in New York. Designed to benefit smaller retailers, it extends Adidas’ 8,000-plus range of shoes into the store, virtually placing each one at customers’ fingertips. (A walkthrough of the adiVerse featuring Chris Aubrey, Adidas’ VP of global retail marketing, is available on YouTube.)  
Created in partnership with Intel, and designed by London-based Start Creative, the wall consists of large LCD touch-screens and uses facial recognition tech to determine a customer’s gender in order to customize their product experience. They can browse shoes with a mere touch, accessing real-time 3D renderings, with the ability to spin them around, zoom in, as well as learn more – like the technology behind each model. Customers can even find out what people are saying about each shoe on Twitter.
Marrying the efficiency of e-commerce with the brick and mortar retail experience, adiVerse lets customers add desired shoes to their virtual basket and start a checkout process with an iPad-toting customer service rep to confirm the purchase, completing the buy with a credit card or cash payment.
“[The adiVerse] definitely adds value because it thinks about the consumer and reacts before they even engage it,” says digital media guru Robin Hassan, group director, digital, at Starcom in Toronto. “That’s the success of it – thinking about the experience of the consumer and how you’re making it helpful for them. The thing that worries me is that if you’re not careful about the added value that you’re bringing to the table and bombarding consumers with too many options, that’s where it’s going to be messy.”

Adidas and the rest of the world will have to wait about a year to see how shoppers navigate the adiVerse, when the company plans to roll out a prototype store in the U.K. While the adiVerse is at the very bleeding edge, it’s a perfect indication as to the kind of added-value experiences brands are looking to create.
It’s been a slower build in Canada, but ground’s been broken. At the end of 2009, in collaboration with Halifax-based design studio Breakhouse and Toronto-based advertising and communications agency Clean Sheet, Trapeze helped launch Wind Mobile’s retail locations across the country with Microsoft Surface as a technological centrepiece to the store design, embedded into large tables in the middle of each location. The multi-touch interactive displays allow customers to navigate device and plan details by hand, and, along with wall-mounted digital screens showing customers’ comments from the Wind Mobile website, aim to more effectively communicate the brand’s “Power of Conversation” positioning to customers.
Since Wind’s retail launch, interactive technologies have begun popping up with more regularity in Canadian telco retail design where, like the adiVerse, they marry the offline retail experience with an online one to provide customers the freedom to interact with the brand in whichever way they see fit.

In Montreal, Quebec telco Vidéotron recently unveiled its new flagship store, designed by Sid Lee, which, along with a flashy LED-animated multimedia staircase (and soundproof booths equipped with 85-inch HD screens), features multi-touch flat-screen countertops with similar street-facing units mounted on the store’s exterior. While the indoor touch-screens allow visitors to navigate the company’s product and plan offerings, their outdoor counterparts enable passersby to take photos, or make videos to add to a gallery, as well as email, or even text their friends. 
Bell recently brought an interactive touch of its own to its stores, part of an ongoing retail revamp that began two years ago following its rebranding. Working with Toronto-based St. Joseph Communications’ digital marketing arm Alchemy, Toronto-based design shop Burdifilek, as well as Leo Burnett and Zulu Alpha Kilo, Bell heightened the presence of animation and digital signage to present its products and services in a more dynamic way, culminating last summer with the inclusion of touch-screen technology.
“Bell really wanted to have a customer engage a screen and have a dialogue with it, which means they can drill down further on any product, any one of the services and get more information so it actually brings the customer closer to that point of purchase,” says Michael Chase, VP, marketing and creative, St. Joseph Content. “[It’s] about treating the customer as a smarter, newer, different kind of animal than they’ve ever seen before. It’s really saying, ‘we don’t want to limit you’ – how much flexibility can we provide in doing things in a digital manner that allows the customer to explore and get to the best they can get out of Bell as a whole?”
Telcos aren’t the only ones building interactive tech into their stores. RBC is using it to help redefine its branch model, reinventing them as more of a retail environment.
Initiated three years ago, RBC’s Retail by Design (RBD) project, designed by Toronto-based Perennial and implemented by CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), headquartered in L.A., is seeing branches being outfitted with touch-screen tech, making the banking experience less daunting for customers by changing the way RBC approaches them with products and services.
“Customer demands and expectations are changing,” says Alan Depencier, VP, marketing services and transformation, RBC Royal Bank. “We knew from trends in our customer research that clients were used to a shopping experience that is much more engaging and transparent than what a retail bank has traditionally offered.”
A Microsoft Surface table is located at the centre of RBD branches, where customers can learn more at their leisure about a financial product, service or category. For more information they can progress to the various service-specific merchandisers, each one featuring an interactive touch-screen explaining their product in more detail. EK3, Sapient, Infusion and MTM all helped implement the in-store tech.
The branches are also laid out differently, built around the tech installations, so that customers can navigate more easily. They can then go even further and engage with tellers who are more apt to step out from behind a counter to help.
“[Applying] retail principles in the bank, and technology, have allowed people to look at products a little more closely,” says Danny Kyriazis, VP, global retail programs, Perennial. “RBC has started looking at banking in a way that’s more about what the customer needs rather than what it wants to sell. The ability to use technology to make a complex product much simpler makes customers feel far more empowered. It makes them feel smarter about deciding to bank with RBC.”
An RBC RBD prototype branch opened in Burlington, ON., in October, with a second launched in December in Halifax. RBC has plans for one more proof-of-concept store to open before it rolls out RBD elements across its network over the next couple of years.
Proof positive that brands across the board are becoming more interested in playing with interactive media in the retail space is Starbucks’ recent dabbling with touch tech. It created two such retail experiences at stores in Vancouver and Toronto as part of a four-week campaign promoting its Tazo line of teas. The screens, developed by The Media Merchants in Vancouver, MediaCom and Blast Radius, were developed as a retail/experiential crossover effort. Passersby and coffee clientele could navigate the interactive storefront displays to explore the ingredients in three different teas by using the screens to guide one of three creatures (a hummingbird, dragonfly or butterfly).   
“Clients can immerse parties in their brand with an interactive game, or gather information to better understand their needs, and they don’t even have to enter the store,” says Brad Foster, president, The Media Merchants. “For a retailer like Starbucks, with the tier one real-estate their stores occupy, it makes an enormous amount of sense to leverage some of these locations for this purpose.”

Starcom’s Hassan, who says her team has been actively investigating interactive tech solutions, notes that three conditions must be met for her to consider such applications for clients: personalization of the experience
for the customer, the promise of, and clarity on, the added value provided and, most notably, scale.
“You can do something really unique, but if it’s just in one or two locations, how many people are you really impacting?” she asks.
Cost has been a major factor when it comes to scale. For the Wind Mobile team, installing Microsoft Surface technology was not an inexpensive endeavour, costing $15,000 per unit for Surface version 1.0. Since then costs have fallen. It was announced at the CES in January that the soon-to-be released Microsoft Surface version 2.0 will retail for around $7,600.
“I think reduced cost in installing these units is bound to mean improved scale across the country,” says Hassan. “That will be critical to the adoption of digital retail tech by media planners, as it will also mean that ROI of creative development can be amortized more quickly and against more reach.”
Hassan predicts that interactive technologies will begin to become more prevalent in Canadian retail spaces in the next 18 months. The question, she says, will be whether they’ll be owned by the brands [like Adidas’ adiVerse] or the retailers.

Clear Channel helps travellers find their way
Clear Channel has brought the interactive experience “out of home.” It recently unveiled its first Spectacular Interactive Digital Advertising and Wayfinding Display at Toronto Pearson Airport in Terminal One as part of a live market test in collaboration with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. The unit combines two tall, 1080p HD plasma displays with a retail promotional wayfinding module that features two interactive touch-screens.
The unit allows travellers to navigate the terminal in order to seek out gates and the best routes to get to them, washrooms, or even a good place to get a cup of coffee.
Advertisers can not only take advantage of the plasma screens to play commercials, but they can also co-opt the interactive touch-screens for customized branded endeavours like couponing. Brands currently advertising on the unit include Afexa Life Sciences, BMW, CIBC, Grand & Toy, Nissan, Reliance Protection and Stuart Weitzman.      
“It marries the needs of both the landlord – in terms of supplying valuable information to their own patrons – and the needs of the advertisers who are trying to get the biggest bang for their buck,” says Alain Simard, VP marketing, Eastern Canada, Clear Channel.