NEW YORK CITY — Jan. 14, 2013 — You’re walking through a mall when a storefront sign catches your eye — it’s an image of yourself in the season’s slinkiest dress. Intrigued, you enter the store.
Inside you step up to a monitor and take a closer look. Not your color, you realize. So you try on another dress, add a purse and belt, and dab on several different shades of lipstick, all without stepping into an actual dressing room.
That disrobing-free shopping experience could be coming to a store near you. A company called FaceCake is using Kinect for Windows to create a virtual dressing room where shoppers can try on outfits, makeup and accessories. The immersive augmented reality experience isn’t some futuristic vision; Bloomingdale’s piloted FaceCake last fall in 20 stores.
This week FaceCake is previewing its latest Try-On and digital signage technologies in Microsoft’s booth at the National Retail Federation (NRF) Annual Convention and Expo. The virtual shopping experience is just one example of how Microsoft is helping retailers engage customers in new ways, said Brendan O’Meara, Microsoft’s managing director for Worldwide Retail Sector.
These days, a customer-centric approach is critical to making the sale, O’Meara said. Today’s 24/7 mobile and digital lifestyles have put consumers in the driver’s seat; they have more information, more options and more expectations when they shop and interact with retailers.
So retailers are turning to technology to keep pace. At NRF Microsoft will highlight dozens of companies that are using its broad range of offerings — from Windows 8-powered devices to Office 365 and Microsoft Dynamics — to engage customers, empower sales staff and manage operations from the warehouse to the store floor.
“Retailers have to deliver very personal, very relevant experiences to their customers in order to differentiate themselves from the crowd,” O’Meara said. “At NRF, Microsoft will showcase how new technologies and our broad ecosystem of partner solutions can help retailers deliver the future of retail today.”
With smartphones in hand, consumers can research products at home, comparison shop right in the aisles, and choose to buy wherever they get the best deal. They also expect a seamless shopping experience whether they’re on a website or in a physical store.
Microsoft’s products and devices can help retailers offer these digital consumers a new level of interactive and personalized service, O’Meara said. They include Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 apps that retailers like Macy’s and Amazon place directly in front of customers. Backend solutions like Microsoft Dynamics and SQL Server help retailers manage operations and sift through customer data for new insight. And the Windows Embedded 8 platform enables a new wave of digital signage, kiosks, point of service (POS) terminals and enterprise handheld devices that can provide new ways for retailers to interact with customers.
With Windows Embedded 8, retailers can combine those devices to create an “intelligent system” — a network of connected devices that work together to let data flow across an organization and help sales staff better serve customers, said John Doyle, director of product management for Windows Embedded.
The Home Depot is joining Microsoft at NRF to present a vision of an intelligent system, illustrating a seamless engagement process that extends to the customer’s home and culminates in a personalized, in-store experience, with the goal of fostering loyalty.
In the demo, customers can purchase an item on a website and schedule it for pickup at their local store. Associates each carry a Windows Embedded 8 Handheld device loaded with task management, customer lookup, order processing and store inventory data. When the customer arrives, the associate uses the device to locate the merchandise and identify opportunities to help the customer with related needs so the customer has everything they need to get their job done.
The devices are part of a larger solution that also includes in-store Windows Embedded 8 thin clients, where retail associates can get more information about promotions, provide project estimates, and schedule home installation appointments.
“With Windows Embedded 8, we’re really taking the latest Microsoft technologies and delivering them across the retail environment to make the technology as easy as possible for their associates to use and help retailers make the most of their data,” Doyle said.
Empowering Employees Through the Cloud
Like many businesses, retailers are moving to the cloud in droves, said Clint Patterson, director of Communications, Microsoft Office Division. Major retailers including Helly Hansen, Tesco and jcpenney have turned to Microsoft Office 365 to get there.
But the cloud is about more than just saving money. Offerings like Office 365 can bring the leading social and productivity tools to people across the organization — from headquarters to the stock room to the store floor — that can unlock insights and empower employees to better serve customers, he said.
At BCBGMAXAZRIAGROUP, an Office 365-based system connects store managers and employees across over 45 countries, enabling the premier fashion house to roll out promotions and new products more quickly as well as move faster to replicate best practices across their network of stores.
Red Robin recently rolled out Yammer across its entire network of 470 stores, where the social network helps store managers and team members collaborate and share best practices. Last year, for instance, Yammer helped reduce the time the burger franchise needs to tweak recipes, Patterson said. When Red Robin introduced a new hamburger, team members were able to capture real-time feedback from guests. That helped them modify the recipe in one month — a fraction of the normal 12-18 month cycle.
“With Office 365, employees can share ideas, customer reactions and best practices across locations,” Patterson said. “So that killer idea someone tried out in Topeka can be tested and implemented nationwide in a matter of days, not months. The end result is a better customer experience, more engaged employees and lower costs.”
At NRF Microsoft announced the availability of Microsoft Dynamics for Retail, a new tool to help retailers reduce complexity in the face of changing business needs.
Microsoft Dynamics for Retail is an end-to-end solution that helps a retailer manage every aspect of its business, including store operations, supply chain, merchandising, call centers, and financials, said Michael Griffiths, global product industry director for Microsoft Business Solutions. It helps businesses connect with customers by letting them buy, pick up, return, or exchange items on their own terms. It also helps empower employees by delivering relevant, real-time information as they interact with customers.
As the connective tissue for so many of Microsoft’s retail technologies, Microsoft Dynamics will have a big presence at NRF, Griffiths said. Attendees probably won’t want to miss the Lotus Formula 1 racecar parked at the booth. Lotus has turned to Microsoft Dynamics to help fine tune every aspect of their business from managing the design, manufacturing, and testing of up to 20,000 parts on each car and analyzing real time data at the racetrack to managing their merchandizing and e-commerce.
Attendees will also learn how Microsoft Dynamics helps power FaceCake’s virtual dressing room experience by delivering product information as customers try on different items.
Razor-thin margins have always been the norm for retailers, but delivering profit has never been more daunting, Griffiths said. The new Microsoft Dynamics offering can help them meet the needs of consumers and respond to latest business trends and expectations.
“Our whole strategy is to help retailers be dynamic,” he said. “We keep retailers connected across any channel, personally relevant so they can provide customers with a complete shopping experience, and agile enough to grow their business without limits.”
Griffiths said he hopes retailers walk away from NRF thinking that only Microsoft is uniquely positioned to help them be dynamic retailers. “From a long-term vision standpoint, partnering with Microsoft is a definite bet to place for your success in the future,” he said.