This article appeared in Internet Retailing Magazine

Although online may have grabbed the headlines in recent years, the bricks and mortar store still has a vital role to play in the retail landscape. Because while today’s savvy consumers may research products online or chat with their social networking friends about what’s hot and what’s not, they still want to go into stores and browse, see products up close, touch them, and enjoy the genuine retail experience. It explains why smart retailers are turning to technology to build face-to-face brand value and capitalise on new opportunities to capture sales in-store.

As retailers get ready to transform the traditional bricks and mortar proposition as we know it, Michael Griffiths, Microsoft’s global product director retail and distribution, takes a look at what the future has in-store for retail.

Rumours of the death of the high street have been greatly exaggerated which explains why this year, according to a recent 2011 retail trends survey from Gartner, 31% of retailers stated they plan to increase their store count. But what’s driving this investment?

Today’s connected customers have so many choices about what to buy and where to buy it, that retailers are battling to gain (or retain) the attention and loyalty of consumers. But for retailers in the know, the bricks and mortar store represents a unique brand showcase. One in which they can demonstrate differentiation by bridging the gap between on-line and off-line experiences, extending engagement with social networks and digital marketplaces to the store itself through cross channel CRM, mobile scenarios, and connected store systems to deliver a richer, more personalized in-store experience.

Technology will play a key role in underpinning this capability, ensuring the effective sharing of customer, product and order data across all channels. Mobile commerce and integration with social networks will also flourish, and as the multi-channel experience matures we’ll see the emergence of new store formats that fulfil an exciting new experiential role.

That experience may include ‘check in’ mobile apps that give shoppers arriving in-store up-to-the-minute promos, vouchers and personalized offers – based on stored information about their retail preferences – and the ability to access their online or friends and family ‘wish lists’ to prompt in-store purchases, easing the stress of the pre-Xmas shopping expedition.

And as shoppers move along aisles, proximity-based messaging will deliver real-time information on products and models, together with information on in-store brand product promotions or pricing on alternative models to inform and recommendations on associated items – for example ‘get the complete look’ – that support the customer in their buying decision. But that’s not all.

Mobile shoppers will benefit from in-store interactions, near-field communications, and contactless payment built into phones to achieve the ultimate ‘browse-to-buy’ convenience. And having completed their unified transaction, they can elect for collection in store or home delivery, as they see fit.

Meanwhile, retailers are investigating if movement tracking, for example, can generate meaningful data on a customer’s journey through the store, enabling them to implement cross channel customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives based on this data, or fine-tune other key retail activities like planning, product allocation, pricing and inventory management.

The ability to integrate online platforms with in-store point of sale (PoS) will at last deliver a truly customer-centric view. When shoppers are in store, they can view an item ‘in the flesh’ and order at the PoS, before returning home and going online to finalize decisions like their preferred delivery date and time, using a unique ticket generated in-store to complete their purchasing transaction.

Tablet technologies are also set to take centre stage, giving sales assistants powerful role-based access to product information, inventory and customer histories to offer a uniquely informed in-store service. These technologies will also powerfully extend in-store customer interactions, allowing sales assistants to demonstrate every product option and variant, and place orders personalized exactly to customer wants – fabric type, colour and size for example.

Retailers are also looking at how to better capture orders in-store, giving shoppers the option to identify where ‘wish list’ items are located, select or scan items from their phone, and complete check out using a single barcode for their entire pick list.

The consumer technologies that previously expanded shopper choices will prove powerful tools for targeted communication and customer engagement in the future. At the same time, real-time data on what’s happening in-store will reinforce knowledge and recognition relating to individual shopping patterns, which includes targeted messaging when shoppers return online.

But the agility and responsiveness needed to translate these marketing activities into sales and profits demands instant multi-channel synchronisation. And that means linking all areas of the retail operation end-to-end – from PoS and inventory management to sales performance tracking, stock ordering and management and payment processing, to a customer’s entire purchasing history and preferences. Ultimately this means using the data and intelligence assimilated by the technology behind the store as well as other channels to optimize and drive the retail business.

For today’s dynamic retailers, delivering the complete in-store shopping experience is the aim of the game. And that means retaining cross channel awareness to deliver personalized care when a customer is in-store, empowering employees to offer higher levels of customer service and personalized convenience. All of which boosts a retailer’s ability to deliver on brand promise through excellence of execution.