Age of Experience

Technology + Imagination Can Save Brick and Mortar Shopping

Brick and Mortar is Losing
In the war for America’s spending dollar, brick and mortar stores fight for survival with e-commerce. Brick and Mortar stores are losing — in fact they’re doing even worse than you might guess.
Part of this loss is natural. As more goods and services become digital, there’s no need for a physical location to purchase them. Also for the purchase of many goods, the convenience of shopping at home or on the go just can’t be beat.
However, brick and mortar is failing as badly as it is because of a pathetic, industry-wide lack of imagination, investment, and courage.

In the face of competing with Amazon, one of the most innovative companies in the world, most Brick and Mortar stores have stood still. Some have piloted 1 incremental idea at a time — and watched it fail — and thrown up their hands in despair while sitting down in a deck chair on the Titanic.

Seriously, how hard should it be for a shopping experience crafted by multimillion dollar companies in large, fully controlled spaces to compete with the shopping experience on a 5-inch touch screen? These phone-apps usually lack sound, smell, taste, excitement, group interaction, and more. This contest should be Disney World vs the Disney website. Instead it’s like Warehouse vs Warehouse Catalog.
There is nothing sacred about the standard design of a Mall or Department Store.
Au Bon Marche – The Original Department Store
The design of the modern Department Store dates back to the mid 1800s and a store called Le Bon Marche. The store was “an entire wonderland of clothes, fabrics, furniture, trinkets, jewelry, and countless other goods — all collected together in one extravagant space.” It was an echo of the “seductive power of sensory overload” as demonstrated by the Worlds Fair of 1855. The idea was to invite shoppers in with fancy windows and trap them by confusing their senses — and sell them things they didn’t need as they wandered around in a daze.
Victor Gruen designs the Modern Shopping Mall
The “Modern Mall” was designed in the 1950s by an avant-garde European socialist named Victor Gruen. He was attempting to recreate the vibrancy of a small European village in weather-protected, managed space. He had planned a beautiful town around the mall — instead the developers surrounded the market space with a parking lot. The corrupted design did spectacularly well — it suited the lifestyles of the 1950s suburbanites. Access to all the same goods as their city counterparts, some excitement and social interaction during the cold winters and hot summers, and a place to spend lots of time. (For more, read Wonderland by Steven Johnson. )
Neither the Department Store or the Modern Mall address the needs and desires of modern shoppers. Modern shoppers do not react well to being treated as a mass market, ripe to being fooled by shiny things. Online competitors have shown us that we deserve more — personalized experiences, which are time-efficient and fun. The Mall/Store should be doing all the hard work, while we are treated like royalty. Satisfying the modern shopper requires re-inventing the shopping experience, nuts-to-bolts.
Below is an example of what we think is possible — using technologies that are available in beta or production today (January 2017.) We think this is the very least that must happen to save modern retail.
Shopping at the Mall in the Age of Experience
Priya is a typical suburban mom in a typical large suburb.
She has an automated setup with and various other websites that purchases her consumables when they are needed and delivers them to her door. She goes shopping for things she finds more fun — clothes, gifts, technology, and the like. Today she needs a new dress for a party that she’s attending and new jeans for her son.
Priya’s self-driving SUV pulls up to the Mall entrance. Her phone registers her presence with the Mall, which accesses her account. The Mall knows many facts about her and her family members:
  • Family Members: She, her husband, her 6 year old son, her 4 year old daughter
  • credit cards
  • home address
  • clothing sizes
  • shoe sizes
  • interests and hobbies
  • birthdays
  • purchase history
The Mall assigns the car a parking spot and it goes and parks itself there. She walks into the Mall with her kids.
She knows that her son had a recent growth spurt, so she first stops in the fitting booth. He is 3D scanned and his new measurements are stored with the Mall and sent to Priya by email.
She exits the booth and whispers into her phone, requesting a Children’s Concierge. A young woman soon pulls up in a small electric vehicle. She greets Priya and the children by name, and wristbands each child. Priya can now track her kids wherever they are in the mall, and the kids can call her or pay for a snack. After kissing them both, the concierge whisks the kids off to the child center. The Child Center is a Mall facility which is part playground, part video game arcade, and part heathy snack bar. Every Mall has one.
Now Priya is free to shop without having to worry about her kids going crazy with boredom, and driving her crazy in response.
Priya has already been to the gym today, so she doesn’t feel the need to walk for exercise. She grabs a Segway from the stand, and activates it using her phone. Her vehicle session is registered to her account, and she’ll be charged a small rental fee unless she purchases something during her time at the Mall. Directed by the vehicle, she rolls up a ramp, through a couple of corridors, and emerges into the women’s formalwear department of Macy’s.
The store is not arranged as the Macy’s of today. Gone are the racks of the same model of garment in different sizes. Each type of garment is shown on its own, or in an ensemble, or on a manikin. Each display is beautifully laid out, showing off the product in unique ways. The store is constantly trying new layouts and sensors track how many customers visit the displays, how long they browse, how happy they seem, and how much they purchase.
Priya parks the vehicle and walks through the displays, enjoying the clothes. She finds a dress that she likes. She tells the display the she likes it, and it indicates that there is a dress in her size. She says that she will try it on. She wanders around and finds 3 more dresses that she likes. Finally she glances at her phone, which shows pictures of the 4 dresses she has on her list. She tells the phone “Let’s try them on!” The phone displays a map to the nearest dressing room, which is not too far away.
She walks over to the dressing room, and it greets her by name. Lights on the floor guide her to dressing room 4, which has her dresses in them. On the wall is a large video-mirror. Priya tries the dresses on, taking a few pictures by asking the wall to “take a photo” at various times. Each one is stamped with Priya’s account, the time of day, and the model and size of the dress. She even takes some video of her favorite dress. She tells the dressing room that she’ll take her favorite, but she’s not sure if the others are worth buying. She sends the whole package of photos and videos to a couple of girlfriends for second and third opinions, then she leaves Macy’s on her Segway and rolls over to a smaller store called “The Children’s Place.”
Her phone asks her who she is shopping for, and she answers with her sons name. Now the Children’s Place knows the measurements and gender of the target, and it reacts the same way that Macy’s did. Some of the clothes will be a little long for him — and the clothes displays show her that by fitting the jeans to a 3D model of him, from his scan when they walked in. He’s growing quickly, so she decides to buy them anyway. She buys 3 pairs of jeans in different styles.
She calls her kids on their bands — they’re having fun and don’t want to be disturbed. She smiles and rides her Segway over to the food court, to grab a Froyo and just enjoys the solo time.
Finally she rolls over to the Child Center to pick up the children. She could have asked a concierge to bring them to the exit, but her kids typically hate leaving the center, and can get surly. She knows she’s better off being there to pull them away from the fun.
She leaves her Segway (which drives itself back to its stand) and is driven back to the exit by another electric car. The phone has ordered the SUV to come meet them, and has delivered her purchases to the exit. All arrive at the same time, and a robot concierge loads the purchases into the back of the car. As the SUV drives them home, Priya gets responses from her friends about the dresses. She’s convinced that the green one looks good on her, so she makes the purchase on her phone. An hour later, the dress is delivered to her house by drone.


  1. Abby Digital

    All of the hardware may currently exist for such an enterprise, but the software integration has some serious hurdles. I’m not sure this could become a reality anytime soon, because of the difficulty in making those connections between the stores and the mall systems. It would probably need to be a single systems integrator providing all the packages to the entire facility.

    1. VineelVShah

      You’re right in that this wouldn’t be easy or cheap. My back-of-the-envelope guesstimate is $100-$200 million for the software integration, with a large integrator like IBM co-ordinating the engineering. For perspective, JCPenny, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Kohls lost a combined net worth of $48.2 BILLION in ten years. If they had formed a consortium, say with some mall developers and the MIT Media Lab and Disney — they could have actually built something like this vision, for basically chump change. Since the companies are worth so much less, it would be relatively more expensive to do this today. But what’s the alternative?

Comments are closed.