The Coming Retail Singularity

In 1993, a US scientist named Vernor Vinge wrote an essay entitled “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”. Vinge’s “Singularity” was the time “within thirty years (when) we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Cheery stuff! And his view was ahead of its time, when you consider that the Internet age had not yet dawned in the early Nineties.

Way before we get to Vinge’s apocalyptic state (a view that is shared, by the way, by Stephen Hawking and other opinion-leaders), I believe that in retail we are headed for our own “Singularity”. This is the point when physical and digital retail worlds merge to a stage where separation is meaningless; when bricks and mortar stores are as smart (or smarter) than the web; when your likes, dislikes, details and shopping history are remembered effortlessly; and when a level of Artificial Intelligence delights shoppers, no matter where they choose to browse and buy. Forget offline or online – the Retail Singularity will erase any such lines. And “omnichannel” will be recalled as a quaint term from the past.

In retail evolutionary terms, we are still crawling out of the primordial sludge when it comes to Singularity, but before we know it, we will be walking upright and running.

You can already get a glimpse of what’s to come in concepts like the recently opened Rebecca Minkoff stores in New York’s SoHo and San Francisco’s Fillmore Street. Fueled by eBay technology, the stores aim to “blend the best of e-commerce with bricks and mortar”, as Minkoff told “shopping and style intelligence site” Racked. Minkoff’s brother and CEO Uri said in the same post that this is breakthrough because there have been “no real advances in retail since the Apple Stores.” (Oh really? How about Burberry Regent St, or Hointer?) But salesmanship aside, there are indeed some cool (and useful) things about these stores.

Step inside and you encounter a giant high definition mirrored touchscreen, where shoppers can browse looks, select styles to be whisked to a change room, and even order a complimentary beverage.

Once in the dressing rooms, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tagged merchandise activates the mirror and tells you what other sizes and colors are available in store. If the dress you chose doesn’t fit, no problem. Tap the screen and summon another. Once you’re happy, another tap of the mirror/screen switches the lighting, so you can see what you look like in different conditions, for example a “Hudson River Sunset” (if you’re in the NY store).

Load the Rebecca Minkoff app on your smartphone, and you can maintain a record of what you’ve tried on and check out right from the change room on PayPal. In exchange, Minkoff gets the prized data that physical stores don’t normally provide.

I asked my wife and daughter to test-shop the new Rebecca Minkoff store in New York last week. The biggest compliment they offered was that the merchandise stood out in favor of the technology. (That’s good, because product should be the hero, the shopper the master, and digital the servant.) Once the tech was pointed out, they thought it was “cool”.

Like other lab experiments, including last year’s “shoppable windows” from Kate Spade (also powered by eBay), the Rebecca Minkoff store is merely the advance party of the coming Retail Singularity.  And far from disastrous, this could be the most exciting thing to happen to retail in years. Stay tuned.