In June 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was carried ceremoniously to the register of a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. When it was scanned at checkout, it became the first barcoded product to be sold.
This landmark event ushered in a new era in retail; although it may not have been framed in these terms at the time, the barcode became the first standardized format for digitizing information from physical products. In the ensuing decades, the need for bridging the digital-physical divide in retail has grown exponentially; so too have the tools that can enable that seamless data transfer.
Yet, even with the often dizzying pace of technological advancement in recent years, the same basic technology behind barcode scanning remains integral to core retail use cases. It’s also driving the next generation of innovative in-store experiences. How could that be? Simply put, optical scanning is the most affordable, accurate and easily deployed method of syncing physical assets with digital systems.
Connecting physical and digital
The rise of ecommerce and digital systems has led to tremendous opportunities in physical retail; the latest image-based scanning technologies continue to be the master key that unlocks many of those opportunities.
Initial use cases of barcoding for inventory management and point of sale remain relatively unchanged. However, increasingly sophisticated computer-vision technologies (bolstered by the rise of high-definition cameras on smartphones and tablets) are empowering retailers to deploy smarter, more efficient and engaging in-store experiences.
For in-store shoppers, scanning a product — on a smartphone or in-store digital touchpoint — can trigger the display of the same rich product information that consumers are accustomed to seeing in ecommerce platforms (price, details, reviews, similar items, additional styles and sizes and complementary products) with the physical product in front of the customer.
There is ample evidence of optical scanning-enabled technologies changing retail today. For instance, QR codes and barcodes are increasingly being utilized by the likes of Walmart, Starbucks and Whole Foods Market. Each of their respective consumer apps has an option to generate a barcode or QR code. This can then be scanned in-store to transfer personal data, account information, rewards or payments. Similar QR code data transfer functionality exists in apps by Venmo, PayPal, Target, Spotify, LinkedIn and countless others.
Apple’s 2017 addition of native QR code reading on iPhones has helped the acceleration of 2D barcode adoption for payments and other high-value data transfers in North America. And why wouldn’t scanning be at the heart of these new processes? Nearly every consumer — and increasingly, retail associates — are equipped with an optical scanning-enabled device at almost all times.
The future of the in-store experience
The next generation of optical scanning will continue to leverage computer vision, enabling visual recognition of objects, environments, faces and written characters. This is already happening to facilitate ID validation and authentication, where a camera can capture an ID for data parsing and, even further, capture a headshot of the user to perform a biometric match. This is making use cases such as ship-to-home, loyalty sign-up, and age verification — for the purchase of items like wine — faster and more frictionless.
Computer vision also has the potential to usher in truly immersive in-store experiences that engage and delight, enabling technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence to interact with the physical world. From virtual makeup experiences to proximity sensing that delivers targeted messaging to passersby, innovative use cases built on computer vision are emerging across nearly all retail segments.
Near-field communication, RFID and other technologies will no doubt play a key role in retail processes of the future; those tools will likely complement optical scanning in much the way that our own senses of touch, taste, smell and hearing complement sight.
While the future is still unwritten, it is clear we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the experiences and capabilities enabled by devices that can decode, read and understand — virtually seeing the world around them.
This article also appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of STORES Magazine.
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