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Walking the tech tightrope: how retailers can get it right

By Cecelia Girr | Strategy director

August 16, 2021 | 5 min read

Stores everywhere are stuck in a race to innovate. But as consumers set digital wellbeing boundaries, Cecelia Girr and Skyler Hubler of TBWA’s cultural intelligence unit Backslash explain why retailers will be forced to walk an increasingly delicate tech tightrope. For more explore The Drum’s Retail Deep Dive.


Getting the balance right between human and tech-led experiences in retail can be tricky

The race to build the shopping experience of the future is on. Headlines praising the hottest new automated stores, blockchain-backed marketplaces and virtual flagships are only becoming more frequent, and retailers are feeling the pressure to keep up.

But while businesses are busy dreaming up the next big thing in digital, consumers are renegotiating tech’s role in their lives. A six-country Google study found that one in four people are working to improve their digital wellbeing, with the three most common changes being deleting apps, turning off notifications and reducing screen time. This renegotiation is playing out on the retail front as well. Over two-thirds of consumers say that privacy in a retail store is more important to them than the ease of automated in-store technology. And despite all the buzz around online shopping’s dominance, studies show that people across generations still prefer to buy in-store.

So, if anti-tech sentiment is growing, why are retailers still rushing to fill their stores with more screens, scattered QR codes and app-based experiences? In many cases, these digital adornments only seem to complicate what should be a straightforward process. And often, after the media attention fades, so does consumer adoption.

We envision a better way forward. Rather than focusing on flashy, short-term stunts, retailers can find long-term success with invisible, intuitive tech that empowers a seamless shopping experience.

Personalizing in-store interactions

One way retailers can provide relief is by using tech to enable personalized employee-to-shopper interactions. For an example of how to do it right, look to Sephora. Sephora sales associates can access customer profiles that detail someone’s loyalty points, purchase history, online browsing patterns and even past interactions with salespeople. Associates then use this information to customize the in-store experience – all without requiring the shopper to interact with a screen.

As biometrics advance, these kinds of personalized experiences are set to become even more effortless. Imagine walking through the door of your favorite fashion retailer, scanning your palm and being greeted by an employee who guides you to the latest items in your size and style. Looking forward, retailers who use unobtrusive tech to put people first will win big.

Minimizing waste with intelligent ordering

Another worthwhile pursuit is using tech to optimize the ordering process. As e-commerce grows, so too does the pile of unsold returns. In fact, over 5bn pounds of returned products are sent to US landfills each year. And as anyone who has purchased shoes or clothes online can guess, lack of standardized sizing is a leading reason for send-backs. To tackle the sizing issue, savvy startups like Presize.Ai, Xesto, Zeekit and Neatsy are using AI and 3D scanners to predict a perfect fit.

One step beyond fit prediction, there’s also bespoke clothing – a luxury that’s no longer reserved for high-end labels. Just last year, Amazon launched a clothing service called ‘Made for You’ that lets customers create custom $25 T-shirts based on their exact measurements. Experts believe this hyper-personalized approach is the future of fashion, especially considering the not-so-distant reality of at-home 3D printers. “When that time comes, instead of buying clothes from a store, we may be downloading digital files from retailers’ apps to then print out garments at home,” predicts Refinery29. Such a process could eventually be the solution to fashion’s overproduction problem.

There’s no question that tech will continue to play a leading role in retail going forward. But as the world applauds the latest in phygital, sentient and touchless, we’ll be watching for a different kind of technological progress. Progress enabled by behind-the-scenes tech that creates more meaningful human interactions, minimizes returns and puts an end to overproduction. A better tech-human balance awaits.

Cecelia Girr, director of cultural strategy, and Skyler Hubler, cultural strategist, TBWA’s cultural intelligence unit Backslash.

For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.

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