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This automated checkout app tries to make shopping feel safe again

As the immersive retail startup Showfields reopens its doors in New York City, it is launching a contactless in-store app to help customers feel comfortable shopping during the pandemic.

This automated checkout app tries to make shopping feel safe again
[Photo: Aysia Marotta for Showfields]

As late as March, customers at the four-story shop of Soho-based retailer Showfields were lining up to take a slide into inventive physical installations (think artificial forests and shiny discos) where they could touch and test products on offer, like sleek toothbrushes from Quip, wellness supplements from Wthn and art from independent artists.

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But after the coronavirus hit in mid-March, shuttering stores and costing the retail sector an estimated $7 billion and thousands of jobs, shops including Showfields are adjusting to a new reality, one where interacting with objects and people in a store pose a hazard to consumers’ health and safety. As a result, people aren’t necessarily thinking about going shopping again. A recent survey from SafetyCenter and YouGov found that 71% of American consumers would not feel “very comfortable” shopping in a physical retail store over the next three months.

That’s devastating for a company like Showfields, which is betting that in-person shopping can still be part of the future of retail. But as its flagship Soho store reopens today, Showfields is doubling down on the premise that creating an experience around a product will make it more enticing to customers.

Their solution? Harnessing the digital to replicate and enhance the old in-store experience for customers who are just starting to venture out.

“Ninety percent of retailers did the same thing during the coronavirus: cut staff, took pay cuts, implemented social distancing rules. But we thought, How can we go further than that and make the shopping experience even better? We want to integrate digital into the experience, and I think that will be here to stay,” Showfields CEO Tal Zvi Nathanel says.

[Photo: Aysia Marotta for Showfields]

Today, customers can make in-store or virtual viewing appointments through the Showfields website. For those visiting in person, the retailer is launching Magic Wand, a new app designed to augment the in-store experience by serving as a virtual retail adviser for customers. While inside Showfields, you can use your phone to tap or scan a display object, and the app will provide additional information on it. The app will also allow customers to suss out product prices, add them to a digital cart, and then check out without interacting with a store associate. Then, you can pick up a bag full of sanitized products on your way out.

[Image: courtesy of Showfields]
“[We want to] create an extension of your personality and your body in the store that would allow you to have a very intense experience physically, but still give you the power to constantly control your physical [presence] because it’s contactless,” Nathanel says.

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Nathanel, who sees Showfields as a physical and digital platform, launched Showfields’s e-commerce website, which is distinct from the Magic Wand app, shortly after the pandemic hit. Because Showfields manages the entire retail process for its partner brands, running individual storefronts inside a bigger store and sharing data with its partners on what is selling, building the website wasn’t difficult, Nathanel says. “We basically just had to create the front end of the website, because the back end was already created.”

[Photo: Aysia Marotta for Showfields]
The site also streams “live” videos, where salespeople can review and talk customers through the products, replicating the experience of talking to a sales associate to get more information before purchasing something.

Showfields’s unique business model—where partner brands pay between $6,000 and $12,000 a month as a subscription fee, but don’t pay rent and take home 100% commission on what they sell—has made it hard for the company during the pandemic. Nathanel admits that the company laid off employees when its revenue stream dried up and it still had to pay rent on massive properties.

[Photo: Aysia Marotta for Showfields]
However, Showfields’s nimble retail structure has also allowed it to adapt more quickly: The company has worked to add brands run by people of color to the store to meet customer demand.

“At the beginning of the lockdown, we saw a very high demand for art, and it was good to be able to support independent artists,” Nathanel says. “Now we are seeing a high demand for products from POC-led companies, so we are working to support that. We will keep doing that—you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

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