May 30, 2007 With computerisation now an integral part of most retail store infrastructures and the general tech-savviness of the population underpinned by a new generation raised on computer games and the internet, it will be interesting to see how quickly very sophisticated systems come to market. A glimpse at what’s possible in the very near future came this week when HP showed off its Retail Store Assistant, an experimental system designed to enhance the consumer shopping experience and improve efficiency for retailers by bringing the power of online access to brick-and-mortar stores. The idea is that the customer swipes their loyalty card on entering the store, receiving a printout that includes a personalized shopping list, relevant coupons, notice of associated store discounts or sales, and even a map to where the items can be found in the store.

With the swipe of a "loyalty" card at the experimental Retail Shopping Assistant, HP Labs researcher Mohamed Dekhil can extract a personal shopping list -- including special prices, just for him -- generated by the store, based on his previous purchases.

Developed by HP Labs, the Retail Store Assistant includes an in-store kiosk, which customers can access with a loyalty card or by typing in their phone number, that is linked to a retailer’s IT system, which contains inventory, sales and customer purchase information.

By better connecting consumer and store data, the system works to the advantage of both customers and retailers. For example, if a grocery store detected that a customer bought yogurt every time it went on sale, it might offer that individual the sale price every time he or she went to the store. Or, if the grocery store determined it had an excess inventory of onions, it might give shoppers a recipe for onion soup, note that onions were on sale and point out where to find them.

The personalization provided by the Retail Store Assistant makes for a better shopping experience and is key to closing what retailers call the “intention-action gap.”

“Instead of sending consumers advertising and coupons and hoping they’ll come in to buy, it’s better to reach them when they’re actually in the store – they’re more likely to make the purchase,” said Mohamed Dekhil, manager of retail applications in the Digital Imaging and Printing Lab at HP Labs, the company’s central research facility. “Besides, about 99 percent of all junk mail is thrown out because it doesn’t offer anything people want. The Retail Store Assistant provides consumers information only about things they really care about.”

For Father’s Day, graduation or any gift-giving holiday, retail stores could, with the permission of the customer, maintain “registries” on what he or she bought, including the item, size, color, style and other relevant information. Customers could even post a “wish list,” just like a bridal or baby registry, so gift givers could eliminate the problem of getting someone something they already have or in the wrong size or style.

People could register at book stores with their favorite authors or subjects or at music stores with their favorite artists or musical styles. Do-it-yourself enthusiasts could register for coveted tools at their favorite home improvement store.

Demonstrated at a news conference today at the Palo Alto offices of HP Labs, the Retail Store Assistant can provide information in text, audio or video and, using advanced HP publishing technology, could provide a customized, full-color printout. The system is a prototype and is not currently being tested in any commercial location.

The Retail Store Assistant has additional advantages:

* It can provide product information about items for sale, including third-party reviews. It can also offer recommendations for related products (“people who bought this also bought ...”).

* It can provide shoppers with price and availability of a product at the kiosk. In a chain store, if the item isn’t in the local shop, the system could recommend another location nearby that has it. * Using HP print technology, it can produce custom printouts of personalized coupons, shopping lists, information on products, and a map of the store with location of selected items. This printout contains a barcode that can be scanned at the checkout terminal to automatically deduct the correct amount for each item on sale and virtually eliminate coupon fraud. * It is also available on the web, so shoppers could access its services before going to the store.

In addition to providing instant inventory tracking, the system also benefits retailers by providing real-time reports and analysis of marketing and sales campaigns, enabling store managers and marketing directors to modify their activities whenever they like. It also provides sales assistance to customers without the need for staff, and it can be used for in-store employee training.

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