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Macy's to Embrace In-Store Technology for Shoppers — Including Free WiFi

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By Laura Heller, dealnews contributor

There's a battle going on between online-only retailers and brick-and-mortar vendors. It may seem a little last-century, but retailers with physical stores are finally trying to find ways to better compete with online retailers; they're now by bolstering their own web presence and adding technology to their physical stores.

But this wasn't always the case. In fact, retailers have historically tried to prevent shoppers from using smartphones in stores, and WiFi was unheard of. But it's become increasingly clear that blocking signals and limiting internet access in stores to prevent deal seekers from price-comparing on the spot has been a quick fix for a bigger problem. Now, retailers like Macy's may be finally willing to embrace new technologies in new ways.

Macy's Developing In-Store Technology for Shoppers

"It's clear to me that the consumer likes shopping online," Macy's Chief Executive Terry Lundgren told Reuters during a recent retail conference in Tucson, Arizona. "I am focused on [answering] 'how do we make them feel as comfortable and ready to buy in our stores as they do online?'"

To this end, Lundgren says Macy's plans on making 292 of over 800 stores double as distribution centers for online orders, up from just it's current 23 stores. Large retailers are finding new ways to stock physical locations and send out extra inventory to other outlets. This inventory strategy employs the same technology that lets us consumers access content. But in these instances it enables retailers to manage their inventory in real time, locate where shipments are in the supply chain, and better fill orders for online purchases, or in-store pickup. Kmart, for example, is experimenting with letting customers order online and pick up an item later that day in a store, or have it delivered to a home or office at a clip. When a company has a better idea of how much of an item is in stock, at what stores, and even on which truck, it's easier to fulfill online orders in a timely way — and still keep shelves stocked for those who shop in stores, for a better in-person experience.

A more surprising move toward technological development is Macy's announcement that it will offer free WiFi throughout its stores. This access will allow shoppers to easily view and post reviews in real time, which is something that has shown to spur others' purchases. Additionally, Macy's is looking to add in-store kiosks to let shoppers access inventory beyond brick-and-mortar supply; this setup is comparable to Kohl's foray into kiosks, although it will presumably be more extensive, and is being deemed an "endless aisle." Moreover, Macy's is expanding its Beauty Spot kiosk program to include interactive screens that provide shoppers access to a variety of beauty items all in one place, thus eliminating the need to visit multiple counters operated by different brands. Associates will even accept payments at the kiosk with a handheld device.

Online Growth Necessitates a Change to the In-Store Approach

Online sales for brick-and-mortar stores are growing fast. Macy's online sales increased by 40% last year and now represent 7% of the company's total sales revenue. Moreover, a number of Macy's customers say that they're likely to make more online purchases this year than last. That's likely because, although being able to touch or physically try out products is important, shopping online offers customers a wider selection of stock, products, and information ... and that oh-so-useful ability to compare prices.

The best solution to meet the needs of the online and brick-and-mortar shopper, then, is to give consumers the best of both the virtual and in-store shopping worlds. As we mentioned, there are instances when a customer wants to be in-store to try items, so retailers should make this an encouraging option, and embracing technology can facilitate this.

Earlier this month, our feature that discussed Best Buy and the showroom effect generated quite a few comments about what readers like (and dislike) most about both online and in-store shopping. Showrooming is plaguing retailers as shoppers use stores to test products but then buy them online for less, somewhere else. Some say that technology is killing the physical store. But it can also help save it. Mobile integration can give savvy shoppers more of what they're looking for, including fair prices, a broad selection, and product information.

A Move Toward More Retailer-Specific Apps?

Tablets and smartphones provide a real opportunity for retailers to spruce up the shopping experience, says Lynly Schambers-Lenox, group product marketing manager for digital publishing suites at Adobe, which helps develop cross-channel retail solutions. "Tablet apps are driving a deeper understanding of products [and] encourage browsing, and in some cases impulse buying."

Retailers like these apps because they keep shoppers within their virtual store and aren't as distracting as a browser with multiple tabs, which can lure a shopper away from a site and pending purchase. Consumers like these apps because the experience is valuable: they can access pertinent information more quickly. While many apps are arguably unwieldy or generally not very useful, a new generation of retail apps are taking advantage of mobile technology and offering beautifully shot catalogs and the ability to locate items in stores or begin a purchase without a browser.

Customer reviews are also useful to both other consumers and the retailer, points out Schambers-Lenox. Integrating customer feedback into a retailer's point of sale system can inform management of what's most important to their customers.

Technology will continue to evolve whether or not retailers support it. And right now, mobile apps and online purchasing are merely ways for consumers to get the best deals on products they desire. But finding new ways to improve the consumer's shopping experience, whether it be online or in-store, will benefit retailers as well; that is, if retailers actually fully embrace the potential of mobile technologies.

Photo credits top to bottom: Vermont.gov,
Syracuse.com, and Mashable


Laura Heller is a freelance writer based in Chicago who specializes in mass market retail trends and consumer electronics industries. You can follow her on Twitter @lfheller.

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Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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