Over in Europe, commercial brands are quietly working on technologies to change the way we shop for the next decade. For all kinds of reasons the tech has only been tentatively embraced Stateside.
But that's about to change. Supermarkets using customers' Facebook accounts to simultaneously watch customers and offer them discounts? Vending machines where you can pay by iPhone? Ordering luxury cars and private jets via iPad-like interfaces and sidestepping the salesman? It's all here.
German automaker Audi opened a new touchscreen-based showroom just off London's Piccadilly Circus, Audi City, earlier this month—right in time for the upcoming 2012 Olympics. Audi City functions equally as a showroom and tourist attraction. Well-heeled customers can order customized cars via touch-screen interfaces (kind of like the recently opened Tesla showroom in San Jose, California, designed by Apple retail guru George Blankeship). The touch screens, which are greatly indebted to the iPad aesthetic, let customers choose the model, engine, color, accessories, and other vehicle specifications. Information is then downloaded to a USB stick, which can be bought directly to a conventional Audi showroom for payment and processing. The salesperson—conventionally one of the most disliked aspects of car purchase—is made redundant in the equation.
According to sources close to the project, Audi City is experimenting with new retail technologies that are expected to trickle out to the larger market over the next few years. While Audi's order-via-touch-screen technology is fully functional, it's also situated so Olympic visitors can be wowed by the latest luxury cars and Audi's embrace of all things shiny and new. Over in Hyde Park Corner, however, is The Jet Business, the world's first "street-level corporate aviation showroom for the acquisition and sale of private jet aircraft." In another words: a car showroom for corporate jets.
Of course, large airplanes can't neatly fit inside central London retail spaces. And although The Jet Business is located on a highly visible corner, admission is by appointment only. Employees and customers have access to a large suite of touch-screen-based information systems, extensive market research systems, and a custom 26-foot display screen connected to a database of the world's business jets to match luxury customers with their future private jet. The Jet Business even sends representatives equipped with mobile devices on outcalls to customers worldwide. Digital showrooms are an increasing (if new) market sector; a recent report by consulting firm PSFK calls "bespoke at scale" one of the biggest innovations in retail.
NFC phone-enabled vending machines are another new European retail innovation that haven't quite caught on here. Creative agency Razorfish's office in Frankfurt recently debuted a NFC-enabled gumball machine for Samsung Galaxy tablet users to download apps, movies, and games. The gumball machine is more a proof of concept than a marketable model—there's a limited market for download apps from a physical vending machine when an app store is available anywhere, anytime with an easier user interface. However, the same technology that lets Samsung Galaxy users download apps from a vending machine can be reconfigured for Android or iPhone users to buy candy bars or soda without taking out change.
However, the technology with the quickest chance of catching on in the United States is the integration of supermarket loyalty cards with Facebook. British grocery giant Tesco recently launched a Facebook application, called Share and Earn, which is testing through the month of July. Share and Earn users connect their Tesco loyalty card numbers to their Facebook accounts. In exchange for liking selected products and sharing selected products with friends on their Facebook walls, users get double loyalty points. In exchange, Tesco gets valuable market intelligence on customer's shopping interests and the chance to push items via low-key, social marketing. Facebook analytics and reports give the grocery giant information on which items customers are interested in. American recipe site Gojee, which was recently featured in Fast Company, also uses similar supermarket reward card data processing.