We are in the midst of major upheaval in retail, and the cloud is right in the middle of the maelstrom.
Soon, your shopping experience is going to be a whole lot more futuristic. Smart fitting rooms will enhance the experience of trying on clothes. Coupons will be beamed into your phone as you walk into a store. You'll be able to actually visualize what new furniture will look like in your apartment before you buy it. And all of these experiences are becoming increasingly possible thanks to the cloud.
The cloud in retail
The cloud is essentially a repository of data stored in many large servers at an offsite location. Cloud computing allows for processing vast amounts of data. What does this mean for you? In a nutshell, convenience and personalization.
We're already seeing increased convenience. As retailers are moving the data they gather about your purchases to the cloud, they can access that information from anywhere. The Gap in Alexandria, Virginia, knows you bought a navy blue blazer on sale two weeks ago, as does the one in Scottsdale, Arizona. This means you can return that blazer to any Gap store.
What's especially neat about the cloud is that it gives retailers the ability to slice and dice your preferences and other data to precisely tailor your shopping experience. Every time you present a loyalty card at CVS, it matches the unique barcode to the products you purchase and stores that data in the cloud. Haven't visited in a while? Voila! Coupons for products you have bought before arrive in the mail or to your phone and draw you back in. Kind of creepy, but potentially very convenient, as well.
Subscription models are also becoming more common thanks to the cloud, says Steve Roberts, VP of retail for cloud-based technology company MPP Global. If you buy into a craft beer of the month club, for example, cloud computing can kick in and make sure to update your preferences, keep track of inventory, and generally deliver a seamless experience to keep you satisfied.
Subscriptions are also on the rise for products you buy more regularly: Your favorite cereal is delivered to you like clockwork every month and the retailer doesn't have to reinvent the sales wheel every time. It's a win-win for everyone involved.
The rise of 'phygital' retail
The cloud is blurring the line between online and physical shopping, making room for "phygital" retail (a fancy — if awkward — way of combining digital and physical).
"Smart" beacons that run on the cloud can now be placed within retail stores, says Evan Tarver, tech analyst with FitSmallBusiness.com. When you (and your phone) get within range of the beacon, it can use your phone's clickstream data (the websites you have visited or products you have browsed) to send you customized ads and shopping deals. This means shopping in a brick-and-mortar store will start to feel very similar to the online equivalent.
Another cool technology coming to a store near you thanks to the cloud: augmented and virtual reality. "Smart" fitting rooms will recognize which clothes you try on (thanks to a carefully implanted RFID tag) and this information will be relayed to the sales associate. If you need a new size, push a button on a screen in the fitting room and have it delivered to you. Magic mirrors take the experience one step further: You can try on a red skirt and, thanks to augmented reality, be able to see the same garment in multiple colors.
Tarver says virtual reality technology, running on the cloud, can also let you visualize furniture in your apartment. "You could bring photo files of your space with you on your phone to the store or upload them to the web prior to coming in and the virtual reality rig can render your room in 3-D," he explains. No more guessing or buyer's remorse.
The crystal ball
We're seeing a bumpy transition in retail. But thanks to cloud computing, after a few initial hiccups, shoppers will soon get the same frictionless experience no matter where they shop, whether at a desktop or through a mobile device or at a brick-and-mortar store.
As for robots helping you in aisle 3, that might soon be a possibility, but don't expect them to replace store managers, says Michael Klein, director of industry strategy and marketing at Adobe. "The human touch is still going to be important for retailers to bring some level of authenticity to the brand."
For now, the cloud takes the things you hate about shopping — generic coupons for products you don't use, the frustration of trying out the wrong size dress in the fitting room — and makes them better.