Thursday, 3 July 2014

Tech helping us to be different. Or at least shop differently.

Recent shopping trip at Oakley shows how tech can further personalise the experience, to make it more valuable.

My last blog entry was about how humans are augmenting technology to make the shopping experience more personalised. As a counterpoint, this blog is going to look at how technology is augmenting humans to make the shopping experience more personalised.

I recently returned from a trip to the US, the home of shopping. The favourable exchange rate plus sale prices enticed me into the Oakley store. I “needed” a replacement for my Ray-Bans which I’d lost the week before (I still have the case if you want a spare for your Wayfarer).

Oakley, like many fashion stores, has embraced personalisation as its key differentiator. There are sunglasses tailored to nearly every pursuit, including leisure. The sales assistant and I quickly concluded that Oakley didn’t do the lens that I liked in the frame that I liked (vented polarised user-replaceable in a large but unobtrusive frame), so we moved to the custom display cabinet.

The business opportunity in custom sunglasses is huge. Oakley has decided that allowing any combination of frame, lens, sock, bridge, icon, insert is worth charging a significant premium, and its customers agree. The number of possible combinations is bewildering and led me to a moment of too-much-choice-brain-freeze. (Thankfully, I was struck by some inspiration, and went with a classical Union Jack colour combination. It’s quite cool, even if I say so myself). The amount of stock required to fulfil the combinations is also bewildering. Lenses for Radarlock Path will not fit Radar Pitch frames. Those little “O” icons are also unique to each frame. Consequently, there are a lot of boxes of lenses and bags of little “O” in the back of the store.

Guiding me through this sales process is now much more time consuming too. The sales assistant suggested a number of frames to try out (suggest which I didn’t look too stupid in). We looked at some custom combinations online, to see what was possible at the garish end of the spectrum. Then he and I worked through how my Union Jack idea would translate into the components. I tried out a temporary arrangement, before verbally committing to buying the glasses. He then went out back to fit everything together, not a trivial task to get perfectly right. He demonstrated how the Radarlock mechanism worked. Even the ringing up of the stock items took a while. All in all, the sale took more than an hour of his time.

Oakley is a “lifestyle brand” and so people are buying an image of themselves as much as a product. However, at my age, I like to think that I’m not so easily flattered into buying sunglasses. So I think I enjoyed the whole experience because of the process itself, not how it pandered to my vanity. I came out of the store thinking that I’d made a really good purchase. Oakley had done their job well on me.

The technology enabler to this is the IT that Oakley uses to manage stock. It’s a neat trick to be able to carry more stock to enable this in-store custom service, without incurring a horrendous cost of unsold inventory. IT gives Oakley the ability to monitor stock levels in real-time, and to manage logistics in real-time, so have the stock for custom whilst minimising cost.

Soon, Oakley will be using more innovative technology to further customise its sunglasses to your peculiar foibles. It will outfit its stores with motion capture rigs that sit on the end of your nose, to accurately measure how sunglasses fit on your face. And it will also outfit the stores with 3D printers so that the mo-cap data can be used to design a bridge that will make the sunglasses sit optimally, whilst you wait. A little later, Oakley will fit out stores with laser etching machines, so your name can be etched onto your lens, further fuelling your vanity.

I got back home, and was impressed one more time by Oakley. I was able to register my new sunglasses online by entering a few details. Oakley was able to verify my purchase, enable a worldwide guarantee, and extend it to two years. All in exchange of my purchase details and my email address. Enabled by IT systems connecting pools of data to reveal value to both me and Oakley.

To conclude, I find that technology lowers the barrier to innovation, and innovation makes things better. Last time I found that humans make technology relevant, and to do things right. Which tells me that the road to success isn’t more tech or more people, but the best mix of both.

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