Seven Ways Technology Will Make The Mall Of The Future Not Suck

Retail is learning to read (and sell things) to your subconscious. Be excited!
heat map of where shoppers' eyes go in a grocery isle
Burke's lab analyzes where shoppers' eyes go as they're pushing their cart down the grocery aisles. Ray Burke/Indiana University's Customer Interface Laboratory

‘Tis the week to frantically finish your last-minute gift shopping. Whether you’re trolling Target or scrolling Amazon, it can be a pain.

Luckily, big data and a bunch of savvy psychologists are here to help. They’re figuring out novel ways to track your in-store behavior, anticipate your needs, and help you find exactly what you need—or a pretty nice trade-off if it’s no longer available.

Leading that charge is Ray Burke. He directs the Customer Interface Laboratory at Indiana University and has spent years analyzing shopping habits. “Those security cameras you see when you walk into a store?” he says. “They’re not just to prevent shoplifting. They’re also used to understand traffic patterns, to see which products are most engaging, and to measure the queue length at checkout.”

Part Big Brother, part a necessity of convenience, and part bottom-line retail booster, here are the seven technologies that are helping—or will one day help—save your holiday sanity.

1. Tracking Eye Movement

Plenty of stores have replaced static cardboard posters with LCD graphics and audio. But, “as you’re looking at the sign, the sign’s looking back at you,” Burke says. They’re not following you, per se. They are measuring how many people walk past, how many stop, and which parts of the sign catch their eye. Pair that with high-resolution cameras, and these set-ups can be sophisticated enough to make out your gender, general age, and even ethnicity, which gives retailers lots of insight about their customer demographics and what they might want.

“Those security cameras you see when you walk into a store? They’re not just to prevent shoplifting.”

2. Taking The Pressure Off

A clothing store at the mall was struggling because fewer men came into the store than women, and those men bought fewer things. The store owners asked Burke to figure out why. He installed a panoramic video camera on the ceiling, with a 360-view, and discovered two problems. “We saw men pick up pants and shirts and then struggle to fold them and put them back on the shelf in the same way,” he says. That makes men reluctant to pick them up in the first place. “So we thought, ‘We can make it easier for them. Instead of doing the normal crease fold, we just folded the product in half and put it on the shelf.” Second, they confirmed what everyone already knows: Men struggle to put together outfits. “So we created displays that showed assembled outfits, not by some stylist but by the things real men were actually buying,” Burke says. Those two changes increased interaction with the displays by 80 percent and increased sales by 40 percent. “We didn’t change the assortment of products; we didn’t change the prices,” he said. “All we did is do a better job of connecting what’s in the mind of the shopper with what’s physically available in the store.”

3. Getting Out

For customers, getting out of a store is as important as moving around in it, and stores know that. They don’t want you jammed into a cashier line getting frustrated and associating that frustration with their brand. Kroger, the grocery chain, has used cameras to measure how long its customers had to wait in line. By monitoring that and opening extra checkout lines as needed, the company has been able to cut wait times from about 4 minutes down to 30 seconds. Other retailers have increased the network connection speeds for their credit card readers. They have been able to increase sales on busy shopping days like Black Friday by 50 percent, Burke says, just by speeding up the processing. That can make all the difference. “The checkout lane is the last experience a shopper has in the store,” he says. “It colors your whole perception of the shopping experience.”

4. Monitoring Moods

People spend when they’re in a good mood, especially impulse buys. Ask Walt Disney: Disneyland visitors buy all kinds of useless, overpriced souvenirs just to recall how much fun they had had at the Kingdom. But when you’re in a bad mood, you’re not making impulse buys. You’re just getting what’s on the list and getting out. For retailers, Burke says understanding these physical and psychological states is critical. But how does the seller do that? “Let’s say that you’re wearing a smart watch that can measure your pulse rate,” Burke says. “If it’s set it up to share information with a retailer, we could use it to know on a second-by-second basis how excited you are.” Smartphones, too, can stand in for a mood ring. “If we’re able to track what music you listen to on your device that might give us insight into your mood,” he says, “and we could tailor the message to better connect when you’re feeling good.”

5. Instant Gratification

Getting things fast—whether you order online, over your phone, or choose an appliance on a showroom floor—is the mantra in today’s retail. Amazon is experimenting with drones deliveries. But eventually, says Burke, delivery may come in the form of an electronic transfer. “You can have products electronically delivered via your 3D printer,” he says.

6. Fuggedaboutit

Some stores literally want to do the shopping for you. A company called Stitch Fix, collects background on you—fashion tastes, lifestyle, budget—and sends you five personalized items on a recurring schedule. You keep what you want and send back the rest. Over time, with your feedback, the company learns your preferences so well that their personal stylists anticipate your every sartorial need, and sells you things you didn’t know you needed (or wanted) in the first place.

The stores of the future want to do the shopping for you.

7. Sharing, Not Buying

Shopping is an inherently consumptive process. It’s all about buying. But Burke thinks we are, and should continue to, move away from that model. He gives the example of a shoe stretcher he recently purchased for his wife. They used it to solve the problem of the too-small shoe, but then had no need for it. “Now what am I going to do with a shoe stretcher?! Do I return it? Well, no I’ve actually used it.” His options were to toss it in the closet, or try to sell it on Ebay or Craigslist (which likely would have been a tough sell). Instead, he wishes he could have rented one and sent it back post-stretch. Burke thinks sharing services are the future. The success of companies like Uber and Airbnb are proof of that. “I think we’re seeing a trend towards a sharing economy, where through technology it’s becoming practical to use products just for a period of time that we need them and then return them.”