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Regent Street is to become the first shopping street in Europe to pioneer a mobile telephone app which delivers personalised promotions to visitors.

Capturing shoppers’ attention as they walk down the pavement was once a relatively simple task for high-street stores.  They relied on location, innovative presentation, and a dash of theatre, to stand out. But now, with shoppers’ shrinking attention span shorter than the average goldfish’s, and the advent of smartphone and Internet accessibility almost anywhere, the battle to capture awareness has become even tougher. So now, to compete with the existing blizzard of information, The Crown Estate, which owns Regent Street, will introduce a new smartphone application that effectively allows your favourite retailer to shout “Hey, we’re over here!” as you walk past their door.


Sceptics might see this as the technological equivalent of handing out leaflets wearing a funny costume. But this system takes advantage of location-aware beacon technology to deliver discounts, new-product promotions and other alerts to shoppers’ smartphones as they walk past stores and restaurants. The app, created by US agency autoGraph, allows users to select their shopping preferences from a list of 40 well-known brands. It then builds a profile to determine which customer gets marketing messages from which brand and distributes them via Bluetooth. Simple! But what are the downsides?

First, shoppers need to download an app to make the most of the technology – thus limiting the possibility of bringing in new customers – so recipients will already need to be somewhat engaged. Secondly, with about 100 stores along Regent Street already fitted with the technology, shoppers could be in for a disorienting and none too relaxing stroll down their favourite thoroughfare if they have selected all their top brands. I’m sure these will prove minor quibbles now, but wait until the technology becomes commonplace.

Imagine the scene. Aside from the risk of fist-fights over ‘personalized’ discounts when customers are summoned by phone like Pavlov’s dogs, pavements will become assault courses as recipients halt mid-stride to study their alerts. Avoiding those mesmerized by simply speaking on their smartphones is already bad enough, will distracted pedestrians soon be wandering into the path of oncoming traffic entranced by a must-have offer? And taken to the extreme, one can imagine the chaos on Oxford Street as great shoals of Christmas shoppers surge back and forth, pounding hither and thither, egged on by competing enticements, first from John Lewis, then House of Fraser! But I digress!

The inevitable arguments about privacy of data will eventually apply too, and we will be given the same tired assurances that our details are safe. In reality such systems can only offer really individual content if fed with enough personal data. So the trade-off is privacy versus greater convenience.  Presumably you have to opt in to this particular app, but what if all that other data captured by machines connected to the ‘Internet of Things’ begins to leak over time? Who’s going to stop all those computers talking to each other? Because, if they really are busy developing human characteristics – one’s allegedly already passed the Turing test – they will inevitably become dreadful gossips! And as Schopenhauer said, “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner…if I let it slip from my tongue, I am ITS prisoner.”

Michael Hoare


OK, so retailers have got face scanning technology, and the self-service checkout, what next? Zooming right to the top of the list of stuff we didn’t know we wanted – but we soon won’t be able to live without – is what the boffins call the ‘Internet of Things’.

Internet of Things

The idea is that inanimate objects – like fridges, boilers, kettles – are connected to virtual networks and can communicate with each other and their owners. The concept isn’t that new, and it has been possible for security cameras, heating systems and the like to be activated and monitored remotely for some time. Once upon a time the ultimate application predicted by scientists was the ability for fridges to sense they were running low on some essential commodity and simply add it to your shopping list, or order it themselves online. When this was first mooted I had nightmarish visions of fridges developing a craving for cheese and creating a world shortage by clubbing together and buying massive quantities. But I digress!

It’s not cheese consuming fridges that are going to turn retail on its head, it’s the latest point of sale technologies! Some say they will be more revolutionary than the introduction of online shopping, or credit and debit cards for purchasing, and that they have the potential to be totally transformative. futurologists predict that one day soon a woman will be able to walk into a store, grab what she wants and simply leave. No need for the checkout, nothing! Today we call them shoplifters, but tomorrow ‘grab and go’ may become legitimate thanks to the ‘Internet of Things’! It may seem extreme, but IoT presages dramatic change in the customer experience.

How will it work? A population of sensor technologies placed strategically within stores, will allow retailers to recognize customers when they walk in the door through their smart devices or other means. Stores will have payment cards on file; customers will be billed when they leave the store with the merchandise, bypassing the checkout.

Store-side, sensors can be placed on shelves to indicate when stock is low and trigger replenishment. Meanwhile intelligent product displays that detect who is around them will deliver customized content via video screens and booths. Video cameras will gather analytic data on store traffic or as part of RFID systems to speed up checkout queues, or even total up the content of your shopping trolley as you wait.

So far, so good, but why? One reason is that with the rise of online shopping, retailers have some self-inflicted problems to solve. Like, how to iron out clashes between their in-store and online offerings, how to look consistent across all platforms, and how to give added value and variety to an arid environment. OK, there is some disconnect between what consumers find online and what they get when they walk into the store, and the march of the mundane and the ubiquitous gathers pace. But, aren’t the futurologists proposing to use a technological sledge-hammer to crack a very small nut?

Just because something is technically possible, must we do it? Couldn’t we put all this technology to better use? These and other questions make me a little uneasy. What about security? Would we be asking customers to sacrifice their anonymity just to conform to the needs of machines, or adapt their behaviour to accommodate technology? Surely that’s the wrong way around! Will these developments inevitably lead to less employment, fewer people providing service, security, and human contact? Would the disconnected find themselves disenfranchised; would the connected have their data protected? And on the most banal level, how would a store detective separate the legitimate customer from the shop lifter in a shop where you just pocket the goods and leave?

Internet of Things 2

It’s a seductive idea, but isn’t this yet another example of inventing a complex answer to a non-existent ‘problem’ of our own making, and wouldn’t it just be simpler to employ more people? They at least are a resource that is in endless and ever- increasing supply!