The retail experience: plugged or unplugged?

Technology has changed the retail landscape dramatically over the past 10 years, so much so that many people proclaimed digital shopping would kill retail altogether. In reality, technology has enabled retailers to connect with consumers better than ever before, and for those brands willing to innovate, it has provided them with a significant advantage in the physical store. But with so many options, it can be overwhelming trying to determine what digital solutions will actually provide an experience customers really want. Executed poorly, technology can become a high-cost/low-return experiment that is quickly outdated. Today we talk to Marcos Terenzio, our own Director of Digital Experience, about Virtual Reality, gesture technology, two-way interaction through mobile devices and more.

Episode Transcript

Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda from Shikatani Lacroix Design, and today we’re talking about digital experiences in the retail store. Technology has changed the retail landscape dramatically over the past ten years, so much so that many people proclaimed digital shopping would kill retail altogether. However, in reality, technology has enabled retailers to connect with consumers better than ever before. And for those brands that are willing to innovate, it’s provided them with a significant advantage in the physical store. However, with so many options, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which digital solutions will actually provide an experience that customers really want.

Poorly executed technology can become a high-cost, low return experiment that’s quickly outdated. Today, we’re talking to Marcos Terenzio, our very own Director of Digital Experience, about virtual reality, gesture technology, two-way interaction through mobile devices, and more. Marcos, it’s great to have you. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Marcos: Sure. Absolutely. So my name is Marcos Terenzio, and I’m the Director of Digital Experience at Shikatani Lacroix. And I started off in the brand and creative industry, and, over time, gradually started specializing in digital, where I’ve had the opportunity to be at several agencies over the years and also start up several digital divisions for companies like the one that we have here at SLD. And my main focus in digital experience is overseeing how digital integrates with the branded environment or the branded experience.

So that could be a physical bricks and mortar location that has digital technologies within it like digital signage, or interactive kiosks, or mobile, but it also explores, you know, social media, online, web, and even a lot of emerging technologies like VR, AR and a lot of really exciting stuff that’s happening in the industry together today.

Melinda: So we’ve all heard this term, the omnichannel experience, immersive experience. These words are buzzing around out there. Why is it so important for retail brands to create that type of experience right now?

Marcos: Well, really, because today’s connected consumer is empowered like never before. And to be successful, brands really need to reach their customers wherever they are at any point along the path to purchase. Customers today expect to be engaged with relevant information for their lifestyle and needs. So digital experiences really have the ability to help brands deliver, evolve, and adapt those communications. So as part of our usual engagement, we try and help brands explore their customer’s digital path to purchase, which is something that we refer to quite often in our engagements, and this will take a look at the entire journey in which a customer engages with a brand.

This could start online, say, through social media, or online, or websites that the customer’s exposed to that they first become engaged or communicated to buy a brand. Then it might, in the context of, say, a physical bricks and mortar location, even take a look at what the different levels of engagement are within that space. So we might look at, you know, a low level or a first level, an attract state where, say, digital signage experiences can help a brand communicate through one-way engagement, and, you know, allow a brand to easily communicate to a visiting customer.

We might also take a look at, you know, the role of mobile, tablet, and even interactive experiences to deliver a little bit more of a two-way engagement level where the customer now has the ability to browse, and navigate, and make selection and choice. And we might even take a look at more immersive experiences like AR, VR and other sensory-rich digital experiences that can really help truly immerse customers, and let a brand tell their story. If all of this is done effectively, then customers will now hopefully become brand advocates. And they can help add to the social media and online reach that a brand has to either increase the chances of them being a repeat visitor or even help start this journey for another customer.

Melinda: Right. So when you look at the way brands are telling this story through technology, in the physical environment, online before they ever get to a store, this immersive experience, what are some of the best examples that you see out there?

Marcos: Well, that’s kind of tricky. There’s quite a few that have been done really well. If I look to one that I recently visited, and I know I’m going to say something that everybody always says. But I recently had the opportunity to visit Apple and visit one of their flagship stores in Toronto as part of a really exciting project, actually. And as part of that visit, I had an opportunity to really understand the staff choreography, the customer journeys, and even the integrated digital experiences that help to provide a consistent brand experience, not just in the store, but across all of the channels that Apple has out there.

And partly, this is because last year, Apple unveiled a new concept that they call “Today at Apple.” And what this is is really a centralized form of communication that allows Apple to have consistent messaging across all of their channels. This is their online, their apps, their in-store digital experiences, and even, you know, what drives the communications that their staff has in store. And to display this in a really big way at many flagship locations like the one I visited, Apple has introduced these massive, beautiful, large 6K LED walls that have become the focal point of the store. The “Today at Apple” concept is the main communication source for these screens.

As we all know, Apple encourages people to hang out at the tables and spend more time in their stores. And they really try and build a sense of community. It’s all about people becoming connected to the brand to feel part of that brand. And that’s why they’ve been so effective in delivering not just products but a brilliant ecosystem and a lifestyle. So this philosophy has influenced the evolution of not only the store design but also the digital content and, of course, the in-store digital experiences as well.

So while I was in the store, and I was gazing up at this beautiful, crystal clear display that had razor sharp, beautiful imagery of the latest Apple gadgets that were shown larger than life, and soothing images of beautiful iPhones panning, you know, obviously, I was really drawn to that. But what really started to interest me was the fact that a lot of these communications weren’t pre-built. They were actually being driven dynamically through this RSS feed, and they were displaying real-time information that was adapting as the day went by.

So my appreciation shifted from something that was just beautiful and aesthetic to actually something that was very functional, and practical, and effective because it was resonating with the consumers that were in the store. It was, you know, displaying information like localized content. It was letting, you know, customers know about upcoming seminars and educational events that were happening in the store. It was even recognizing personalized users that were coming into the space, and it was even talking about communications that Apple had just broadcasted online that same day, which I thought was really impressive.

Melinda: You mentioned the staff choreography. Can you go into a little more detail on how that was integrated in the Apple store?

Marcos: Well, I mean…yeah. The first thing that you notice when you walk in is you don’t really have any pushy salespeople that are trying to pawn off products when you walk in the store. You have more just helpful experts that are passionate about technology and passionate about the brand that are just trying to start a conversation with customers as they walk in, really, and get to know who they are, first and foremost, you know, what they’re in the store for, what they’re hoping to achieve.

And then they quickly triage them and help them identify if they need to actually speak to a person, if they just need to be directed to browse and explore, or even just welcome with open arms to come in, and hang out, and have a coffee, and try out the equipment, and just be part of the community space there. So that’s really the essence of the staff choreography and the customer experience at the Apple Store.

Melinda: So on the other end, you don’t have to name any names, but what are some of the big mistakes that you see brands making when it comes to integrating technology? You can name names if you want to, but you don’t have to.

Marcos: Well, I mean, I don’t know that it’s any individual brand that’s making mistakes. I mean, digital’s a hard thing to really get done correctly and effectively. So what I can point out are some common mistakes that I see in the industry. And a lot of times, I see brands that are maybe late to the game or, you know, late adopters, I’ll call them, that they’re just beginning to take a look at adding even the most basic digital experience to deliver engagement in their stores.

And while you know, something like just adding digital signage to the store is a great start, it really is only just the beginning and, frankly, table stakes for a long time now. Today’s retail customers are able to conveniently order products online. So retailers that are hoping to still be compelling enough to make them want to come in and visit their bricks and mortar location, frankly, really need to up their game. They need to deliver a higher level of engagement and at the same time, help reduce some friction points and the basic way that customers like to shop.

So just having one-way, simple digital communication in the store, frankly, is not going to cut it. In many cases, these late adopters are trying to rush this, and maybe they’re buying inferior technology that is not really reliable. You know, sometimes it’s not professional grade with a long life and rated for 24/7 operation. They’re just trying to buy consumer-level digital technology to deliver basically a professional solution. And while, you know, this may seem like it might save some upfront costs, in the long run, it’s actually going to cost brands a little bit more because they’re going to have to inevitably replace this technology because it will fail.

It wasn’t intended for that type of use, and that’s a really common mistake that I see a lot of brands still making these days. As well, many of these late adopters are adding technology just for the sake of technology and not really thinking about the content, its purpose, and how it can really elevate the customer experience. And that really is the biggest mistake that I see happening all the time.

Melinda: Right, where it’s not connected to the consumer.

Marcos: Exactly.

Melinda: Yeah. So what about the line between too much and not enough in a retail environment? You know, sometimes you might go into a space and there’s a million screens, but they’re not really…it’s overwhelming. Or you might go, and you’re looking for some information, or looking for some, like you said, a friction point that could easily be resolved through the use of technology, and it’s not there. How can brands make sure that they’re striking the right balance?

Marcos: I mean, like I just said, brands should never introduce technology just for the sake of technology. Any digital experience needs to begin with a digital strategy that considers several points. I mean, first you need to look at who the audience is going to be, what is their main purpose of visit. You know, you want to identify how can the digital experiences actually enhance their customer experience? How can the digital experiences help to attract, engage, and retain the customer? What’s the main message that the brand wants to convey or, you know, what’s the story that they want to tell? What type of content will help achieve that? There’s a lot of factors.

And, you know, after considering all of these, only then can you really begin to take a look at what the right technology to deliver on all these things actually is. Sometimes it’s a lot of technology, and sometimes it’s very minimal. It’s not really a one-size-fits-all solution that can be prescribed or even planned. It’s really about weighing the brand’s needs together with the customers’ needs and finding the right balance between experience, ROI, and budget. And, I mean, this is a detailed strategic exercise that is very important. And a lot of brands tend to skip this exercise in the beginning, and they just rush to buy technology or try and deliver on one of these points without carefully planning a longer-term strategy.

Melinda: Right. You mentioned budget, and that was my next question for you is that, obviously, the costs can be anywhere from, you know, a reasonably low amount to…there’s really no ceiling. Is there a way to be innovative on a budget, and what are some ways that brands can get the most bang for their buck?

Marcos: I mean, the good news for everyone in the industry is that the cost of technology is lower and lower every day. And the options that we have available in which to communicate on is growing just as rapidly. And digital experiences can be looked at as varying levels of engagement, like I was just talking about before. So, you know, in the digital path to purchase, sometimes you can also take a look at a phased approach. You know, you don’t necessarily need to deliver on all of those aspects at once. And budget is obviously going to be a huge constraint for some brands to be able to fully adopt that solution.

So perhaps as part of a planned and phased digital strategy, you could maybe start with the first level that we talked about, which was attract. So maybe as simple as one-way digital signage can be a good starting point. That could be maybe one or a couple of screens throughout a bricks and mortar location that can start delivering some communication. And over time, this can maybe increase and predefined time to do that is actually important to identify, otherwise your temporary solution or your phase one approach becomes your only approach. And I’ve seen that also happen too many times. So if you can identify a phased approach and try and stick to it, then you’re still able to increase that communication to maybe deliver some of those interactive and two-way solutions and scale in the complexity and the level of engagement as time allows.

Melinda: So what about the future? Are there any emerging trends that you think retail brands should really get on board with? Are there any that they should be staying away from?

Marcos: Yeah, I mean, I think the undisputed screen and technology of choice for most people these days is their mobile device. So it’s not really an emerging trend anymore. It’s something that’s well adopted into our everyday life. But I don’t think any digital experience can be considered without considering how mobile can either be an extension to it, communicate with it, or be a part of it. So really mobile is number one. Like, that’s something that every brand needs to make sure they have a strategy around. And then, you know, obviously, if you can enhance the mobile experience through additional digital experiences, then it can only be more effective.

And mobile doesn’t just have to be the customer’s own device. It could be the use of tablets and touch screens inside a physical bricks and mortar location. Tablets are actually the most cost-effective kiosks that you can deploy in a retail environment. And, you know, you’re able to start introducing some of these two-way engagement communication pieces like I was talking about before, through the use of, say, a tablet kiosk that does not rely on the customer having to download an app and have it before they enter the store.

It’s something that they can interact with the first time, but it’s still a mobile experience. It’s something they’re familiar with, and something that they will likely adopt quite quickly. And, you know, something that’s actually increasing in effectiveness every day, and I guess can still be looked at it a little bit of an emerging trend just because brands are just starting to successfully integrate this method is the use of IoT and being able to leverage data to deliver more personalized experiences.

This is something that everybody’s been talking about for a long time, but there’s very few brands that are actually delivering a solid integrated IoT database solution that spawns across an omnichannel model. So this is an area that I think everybody should pay close attention to, and it’s really something that every brand needs to consider.

Melinda: So what about things that people should just stay away from, trends you think are going to die, things that just aren’t worth the investment?

Marcos: Well, I mean, again, I’m not going to take a firm stance and say you should stay away from it. But one type of trend that I personally have tried to stay away from is gesture-based interactive experiences. Now, while I love the idea of them and believe they are really cool, I’m actually yet to see a gesture-based interactive experience that functions flawlessly without problems. And I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of emails from companies that I partnered with that are in the industry that are going to say, “Hey, I got a great experience and works flawlessly, and I deployed it. What are you talking about?”

But you know, frankly, in my own personal experience, I’m yet to find an experience that doesn’t have any glitches, that doesn’t malfunction, that has precision in UX where the customer makes a selection, and it selects it flawlessly. Usually has a little bit of a glitch. It’s not very forgiving to the customer, not standing at the right distance from the experience or not interacting in the proper way, or motioning in the right way. And frankly, all of those things attribute to a broken user experience.

So I think there’s a lot of other ways that you can deliver that, you know, really cool, interactive two-way engagement. But if I had to say one that you might want to be careful in deploying, it’s definitely a gesture-based experience. So I will say that, you know, if you are prepared to do a lot of testing, and fixing, and retesting, and fixing before you get it right, then yes. There’s potential to actually deploy something really cool with gesture-based interactivity, but you need to be prepared that it’s going to require time and cost to actually deploy a solution like this flawlessly.

I mean, another, I guess, also you can still call an emerging trend because it’s still not commercially deployed from a marketing-level perspective is the use of VR and AR. Which, again, similar to the gesture-based technology, not in the unreliability aspect of it, but definitely in the aspect that you need to carefully plan, test, and retest, and deploy this type of experience, AR, VR, and mixed reality is definitely something that falls into this category. I will say that I’m a firm believer that VR and AR is probably the most exciting emerging trend right now.

And my digital experience team and I are really investing a lot of time, energy, research to test and develop mixed reality experiences, and, hopefully, deliver them to more and more of our clients. And all of the major players in the space right now are really starting to collaborate, which is a great thing because it’s going to really help leapfrog and advance the industry. Just recently, Microsoft announced the release of mobile tools for both Android and iOS to expand the HoloLens’ reach, which is something that’s really exciting because not everybody has the budget to go out and buy a HoloLens device. And it’s something that’s still being adapted and evolved, and wave two and wave three of the HoloLens device are going to be releasing soon.

But through mobile apps and tools like this, you can start getting people to feel more comfortable about the HoloLens experience. And I think that’s something that Microsoft is doing very well and being very proactive at deploying as well. You know, Google and Apple are really starting to push the mixed reality experience. And it’s really opening the door to bring this technology to more and more users that are not restricted to just automation, or medicine, or science, which are the typical industries that have really jumped on board with AR technology. So this is great news for all of us. It’s really going to allow the industry to embrace these trends. And like I said, all of us are working very digitally to try and advance and make this as widespread as possible for our clients.

Melinda: Marcos, thanks so much for being here. It’s been a great conversation. So, in a nutshell, retail brands need a digital experience plan, and it’s better to get planning sooner than later regardless of the size of your budget. And that’s true of so many things that wait until the last minute can cause us to make choices out of a sense of panic and anxiety. It’s not a great way to make decisions in any circumstance.

To learn more about planning out a digital customer journey, you can connect with Marcos or anyone on our digital team directly through our website, and we’d also love to hear what your experiences have been developing a digital strategy for your retail brand. Has it been exhilarating, terrifying, and what else do you want to know about digital customer experiences? From me and the content team at SLD, drop us a line, and thanks for joining us.


Marcos Terenzio is Director of Digital Creative Experience at SLD, and oversees the integration of digital creative solutions that converge technology, innovation, brand, and design experiences. His focus is helping brands innovate through multichannel solutions that meet business objectives and deliver results along the digital path to purchase.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email