Back to Experience channel

How the Internet of Things (IoT) is Transforming the Retail Sector

What is the IoT? We look at ten key examples of how this innovative technology is being applied to retail

By MCI Staff

The Internet of Things (IoT) is just one of many new technologies that are likely to transform the retail sector over the next few years. It sits alongside blockchain, FinTech, and VR as the subject of much speculation, promise, and uncertainty.

Amidst all the speculation, though, it’s easy to miss the fact that the IoT is already seeing widespread use in the retail sector. 

Sign up to the MCI Experience Channel!


According to a recent report by Global Market Insights, Inc., for instance, the market for IoT in the retail sector is predicted to reach over $30 billion by 2024. In another report, Verizon has found that retail companies have already realised the benefits that IoT tech can bring to their consumer interactions. Specifically, 

  • 77 percent of retailers believe that IoT solutions can help improve customer experience, 
  • 89 percent of early-adopters in retail say that IoT enables them to gain increased insights into customer preferences, and
  • 77 percent of retailers say that IoT technology helps them to cooperate with partners in delivering quality products and services to their customers. 

What is the IoT?

Put simply, the IoT is a way of integrating the real world with the internet. Objects are embedded with sensors that can detect and store pieces of data about them, and this data can be accessed and worked with by machines and applications connected to the same network.

This is certainly a broad definition. However, it also suggests the sheer range of applications for the IoT, since almost anything can be connected to it, and anything can, therefore, be transformed into a ‘smart’ object that can be interacted with.

The retail sector has been at the forefront of the adoption of IoT technologies, and with good reason. Like many sectors, retail has been transformed by digital technologies. Unlike some other sectors, though, retail is concerned with the physical movement of objects. Since the IoT promises to integrate digital technology and physical objects, it is not surprising that retailers have been among the first to explore its capabilities.

IoT in the Retail Sector: 10 Key Examples

The capabilities of IoT technology are only beginning to be explored, and so giving an overview of just what the technology can do is almost impossible. What is possible, though, is to look at the ways that retailers are already using the technology. 

Smart Shelves

One of the most direct applications of the IoT is found in the ‘smart shelves’ that several retailers have begun to use. 

In these systems, objects in a store are tagged with an RFID tag. An antenna can read these tags and sends the location of each item to an IoT system. In this way, the physical location of every item can be tracked in real time, and this data can be used to inform inventory management software. This all feeds into more efficient stock analysis and automated stock retrieval - enter robot pickers and drones. Pretty smart, right?! [we’ll get on to robots a little later]

Beacons

Beacons are simple, low-energy Bluetooth devices that directly push notifications to customer’s phones when they are in range. Because they are so small, they can easily be attached to walls (or any other surface), and deliver relevant information to customers in exactly the context that you want them to receive it.

Though a relatively new idea, beacons are already seeing extensive use in the retail sector. BI Intelligence, for instance, predicts that the number of beacons installed in retail outlets is likely to grow from 96,000 in 2015 to 3.5 million in 2020. Swirl Networks Inc. found over 70% of shoppers say beacon-triggered content and offers increased their likelihood to purchase in-store. Beacons, too, are widely utilised in events and are especially useful for exhibitions. They can be used to monitor real-time traffic and help inform decisions to heighten audience engagement, drive action and lead to higher conversion rates.

Robots

People have been predicting that robots are going to revolutionise the retail sector for decades, but in recent years it appears that this is actually happening. Amazon’s dedicated Robotics lab has produced 45,000 robots to fulfill stock operations across their 300 global warehouses. This has enabled their warehouse operations to scale up and be adaptive/reactive to consumer orders. Target and Walmart are testing and utilising robots in stores to help stock shelves and take inventory to optimise the shopping experience for customers. Instore robotics assistants are being trialled as well, where they interact with customers face-to-face either through touch-screen or voice-recognition and help them with product selections and location. For this to be widely adopted a lot of “subject matter expertise” must be taken into account in training a robot’s operating systems. Softbank’s Pepper robot is a “household” name with it’s humanoid characteristics - Pepper drove a 70% footfall increase in the first week of a branch launch, with another seeing 13% increase in sales and 6x adoption of a new product. The novelty factor definitely weighed in on the spike and not necessarily down to improved services or customer experience here. Legitimate return may take another few years to see but any tangible ROI will propel adoption of similar robotics applications across relevant future-focussed retail organisations.

Digital Signage

Digital signage also relies on IoT technology but uses it to deliver bespoke ads to customers. In the most advanced installations, digital signs can even identify the gender and age of those walking past and can use this data to decide which advert to display. Digital signage can respond to external factors and react quickly to changing factors, making it both intuitive and relevant.

In less sophisticated set-ups, digital signs can query a customer’s smartphone in order to identify them, and then display ads or other information tailored to them.

Fast Registration At Events

Because the IoT seeks to integrate the real world with the digital one, some of the most exciting applications of the technology have been in corporate and consumer events. Using the IoT in these events not only provides attendees with a smoother, more convenient experience: it can also be used to impress upon them a brand’s values and willingness to embrace the latest tech.

One such example was Hilton America’s Leadership Conference in 2017, where each attendee was given a smart bracelet. This bracelet was paired with a profile containing contact information, and also contained an RFID chip. MCI has also utilised this technology to bring people together and allowing them to network in a frictionless manner by easily swapping contact information by touching their bracelets simultaneously.

Exhibition Tour

Another innovative use of IoT tech in retail events was showcased at Event Tech Live. Attendees at the event were issued with an ID card. So far, so normal. However, this ID card incorporated an RFID chip that could be used to interact with each exhibitor’s stall. Exhibitors could then choose what information would be uploaded to a visitor’s profile when they touched the badge to a receiver. Here we can see how IoT is impacting on the way brands communicate with their potential customers, paving the way for a more personalised interaction that will nurture sales.

Convenient Shopping Experience

Multiple banks are adopting the IoT system of contactless wearables to facilitate purchases. Consumers can leave behind their wallets and focus on the experience. From sporting events like the US Open, Formula One and football tournaments, where fans can enjoy frictionless purchases, to theme parks like Disney and Universal where customers can wait virtually in line and trigger water jets and light effects via their devices. 

Fashion giants such as Kate Spade, Fossil, Diesel and Michael Kors have all begun selling chic, fashion-forward smart watches and NFC in the UK has produced the first contactless payment rings. 

Events have also adopted this technology, such as Eurovision, where each attendee was given a smart wristband that was linked to their payment details. Visitors could then leave their cash and payment cards in their hotel room, and instead, use their wristband to pay for products. The same wristbands, in fact, could then be used at any contactless POS terminal in the world.

Wearables enable brands and customers to have simple and seamless transactions, through ease of payment and added enhancements like virtual queuing for a heightened retail experience.

Traffic Monitoring

The SC17 conference also used IoT in an innovative way. Attendees at the conference could be tracked as they moved around, and real-time heat maps were produced of where crowds were gathering. 

In the event itself, this technology helped the organisers to see which exhibitor stands were the most popular, and to quickly address any overcrowding issues that arose. However, several retail companies have since shown great interest in the technology, which may help them to see (in real time) where customers are gathering in a store, and to better plan the positioning of their products.

Real-Time Networking

The South by Southwest conference is another event that has been at the forefront of IoT. In this case, the conference used beacons to provide attendees with a list of other visitors in their vicinity, and some quick information on their job role and sector. 

The system was designed to allow visitors to quickly and painlessly make meaningful connections, and to streamline the networking process. It could also be used, however, to deliver bespoke messages as participants moved around the venue, drawing their attention to particular stands or products that might interest them.

It is not hard to see the value of a similar system in the retail sector: beacons could easily be used in a store to give customised recommendations to visiting shoppers and to draw their attention to items that they might miss otherwise. Likewise at a retail event experience, this system could be adopted to stimulate new connectIons and strategically match attendees according to their interests.

Smart Hotel Rooms

Marriott Hotels have used the IoT in order to provide truly personalised experiences for its guests. Guests can create a profile on an online system, through which they can set their desired room temperature, and even customise the images they would like to see in smart picture frames. Every time they visit a Marriott hotel room, their preferences are automatically retrieved.

These hotel rooms represent arguably the most sophisticated use of IoT in the hospitality sector, but again it is not difficult to see similar ideas appearing in the retail sector soon: it may even be possible, in the near future, to offer every shopper their own bespoke retail store, stacked with items that you know they will love.

The Future Of The IoT In Retail

So there we have it: 10 examples of the IoT, used in completely different ways, by completely different companies. Given the flexibility of the technology, this should not be surprising. It is also worth noting, though, that many of the most exciting applications of the IoT (as seen in the list above!) have been during corporate and consumer events.

This is no coincidence. 

Since the IoT ultimately aims to unite the physical world with the digital, it is natural that the most extensive use of the technology has come in those contexts where real-life customers meet the latest advances in retail technology: consumer trade shows.

IoT has also proved particularly popular in events because of the simultaneous rise in the popularity of experiential marketing. The IoT is still relatively new to most consumers, and as a result still has an enormous ‘wow factor’ when deployed and integrated into experiences correctly. For this reason, many retailers have chosen to test proposed IoT systems at events first, where they can reach influencers and gather feedback, before rolling it out across their wider retail platforms.

Ultimately, the IoT provides a powerful tool for retail brands to engage with their customers in more profound, personal ways. And so whilst embracing new technologies is always important, we should also remember that they are only valuable if they allow us to heighten the experience, connect and communicate with our customers more meaningfully.

We can help you to create experiences that showcase the power of IoT and increase the impact on engagement with your target audiences - start your transformative retail brand experience.