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Customer Experience

There's a problem with this Super Collider

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Can technology save the shopping centre and provide a well-oiled experience for customers?

The Superconducting Super Collider was going to be the largest particle accelerator in existence, with a circumference of more than 87 kilometres. Estimated to cost $4.4 billion, construction began under the ground at the site just south of Dallas in 1987. By the time the project was cancelled by the United States Congress in 1993, less than 24 kilometres had been built and $2 billion of US taxpayer money gobbled up.

Super Collider in the snow

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Running over budget was one problem, but perhaps the biggest issue that led to the project's cancellation was the failure on the part of its advocates − who were many − to clearly articulate the value of the project and sell it to the Congress. It was too much for the American public, perceived as a pet project of a few mad scientists, a boondoggle, an answer in search of a question.

In case you're wondering, this is highly relevant to modern retail. The reason may not be obvious: it's that within this technology revolution that is tearing up the book on the way people shop, there are a large number of mad ideas, expensive to develop and costly to pilot, that are not going to be realised. The ones that are ultimately successful will have two key characteristics − to genuinely solve a problem and the problem it solves will be competently articulated.

Luckily for the techies, in shopping centres and retail stores, they will find no shortage of problems to solve. And problem-solving rather than whizzbangery-for-its-own-sake will be where technology makes its mark in retail over the next 10 years.

Shopping should be enjoyable

What are some of the things that people hate about shopping? Let’s throw out a few – they hate driving around a parking lot – often one that’s on multiple levels – trying to find a spot. And then having parked, they fear not remembering where their car is.

They are frustrated at not being able to easily navigate around the shopping centre. And when they find the store, they hate not being able to navigate around it. They hate when the store doesn’t have their size, colour or is just plain out of stock of the product they want. And if the store does have the product, they hate having to wait in a line to pay for it.

Note that these are all really simple, and at the same time large problems. But until e-commerce came along and gave people a choice, there was no compelling need for retailers and shopping centre operators to fix these things. Where else were people going to go? So technologically speaking, physical retail space has always been very under-invested. Think about how much technology is embedded in the operations of the best e-commerce sites, and then compare that to the technology embedded in the average bricks-and-mortar store. That imbalance now has to change.

Technologically speaking, physical retail space has always been very under-invested.

- Michael Baker, ICSC

Shoppers do like venturing out

The trigger for that change has arrived – the e-commerce platforms of traditional retailers are now readied in some shape or form and everyone now realises – including relieved shopping centre operators and retail chains groaning under huge store fleets – that consumers really do want to shop in physical space after all. But they will no longer put up with the pain that comes with it. (If you are a retailer you will have heard and read many times that consumers have become more ‘finicky’. That’s just new-speak for not putting up with shabby retail experiences anymore.

So getting back to my shopping hate-list, can technology solve these vexing problems and let me just be able to focus on what’s fun about shopping, making me an enthusiastic and highly valued customer at my local shopping centre? The answer is ‘yes’ but the transformation will not occur overnight.

Some technology-driven improvements have already taken hold – note, for example, the parking lot technology in some shopping centres that guides drivers to vacant spaces, and the increasing number of centres offering customers free Wi-Fi in the common area.

Shoppers like to know where to go

Other technologies are still under development, such as mobile technology that will give shoppers turn-by-turn navigation ability in the centre and within the store. Consumers will be liberated from those awful fixed-point shopping centre directories, and, once in the store, from the exasperation of trying to find a sales person who will deign to make eye contact and then help find what you’re look for.

The same mobile technology is also being employed for the first time to better understand how shoppers like to use a centre – where they congregate, the things they speed past, the places they go sequentially. This will enable shopping centre operators to reconfigure space, adjust co-tenancies and eliminate ‘dead’ spots, thus making the shopping trip more efficient.

Other technology is being trialled to help retailers process shoppers through checkout. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification technology) is being used to manage inventory and reduce those infuriating out-of-stocks.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Shopping in physical space will be fun again even for some of the most battle-hardened online shoppers. The fun will come primarily from technology eliminating real pain.

So my advice to developers of technology solutions for retail – make sure your product solves a real problem, a big problem, and be able to articulate what it is. Don’t, for goodness sakes, put any more Superconducting Super Colliders out there.

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