This article was originally posted on Retailleader.com

Technology is evolving at an accelerating pace, and along with that comes heightened consumer expectations. The on-demand economy — services like UberX, Amazon Prime and Starbucks Order Ahead that allow customers to get food, transportation and other products and services at the touch of a button — has redefined what “convenience” means to shoppers.

The next five years won’t be any different. Major change is afoot, so we wanted to take a moment to look at two future technology trends that we expect to have a material impact on the retail and grocery sectors:

1) 1-2 Years Away: Automating the Moment of Inspiration

“The moment of inspiration”: it’s that lightbulb moment when you realize that you’re out of milk, cereal or toilet paper – and more importantly – that you better pick it up next time you head to the store. Unfortunately, we so often forget to jot it down or note it into our phones, only to realize we still don’t have those items when we return home from the store. What if there was an easier way to remember / be reminded next time we entered the store?

Until recently, capturing this moment has been an out-of-reach opportunity for retailers. But that began to change in 2014 when Amazon launched the Amazon Dash Wand, a fridge magnet with a barcode scanner and voice recognition technology. With a single click of the device, shoppers can scan a product or dictate an item, and the product or spoken word instantly ends up on their Amazon shopping list. Amazon rightfully identified that shoppers and their purchases could be lured through an easier, more convenient experience. And as a side benefit, this would allow Amazon to know their shoppers’ purchase intents, track conversion, and communicate accordingly.

Amazon didn’t stop there. Rather, this was the start of a new “convenience” movement. They subsequently released the Amazon Echo — a hands-free, voice-controlled speaker, with the ability to capture that moment of inspiration in the simplest possible way — through a spoken sentence: “Alexa, add toilet paper to my shopping list”.

Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home and the rumored future response from Apple are designed to connect with 3rd party devices and services like your digital thermostat, your smartlock, and your Uber account to serve as a personal assistant that can automate almost every aspect of your life. Soon, everything will only be a request away. The next digital frontier beyond the mobile phone is not the watch – it’s a natural conversation.

Thanks to new machine learning technologies, retailers will be able to create their own voice-based “bots” that will connect with these devices and provide answers and services to their shoppers.

In the grocery sector, your shopper could ask something to the effect of “Are there any interesting sales this week at Lowes Foods?”. The device would respond with “Your favorite brand X is on sale for $2.99; shall I add it to your shopping list?”

Thanks to the truly effortless nature of this natural interaction, the possibilities are endless.

This will push the on-demand economy to new heights. Retailers who aren’t in the game will quickly feel dated and cumbersome, while those who join will pull ahead. 

To prepare for this next automation wave, start by investing in your data: ensure it is clean, complete, and API-accessible. With a solid foundation of data, your next step will be to identify the most likely and convenient use cases, and build out a “chatbot” that connects to your data and to these voice devices.

Don’t delay – these investments are not small, and this future is right around the corner; in fact, it’s already here. It’s just a matter of how long it takes before this technology is in every household.

2) 3-5 Years Away: The Mixed Reality Kitchen & Store

Mixed reality (MR) is defined as the merging of real and virtual worlds, whereby digital objects are overlaid onto the physical world via glasses (and one day, contact lenses) in order to create a new combined experience.

Major tech titans including Microsoft, Facebook and Google are investing heavily in this space. Microsoft is building their HoloLens to transform the entire living room into a gaming space, while Google was a lead investor in Magic Leap, one of the most heavily funded startups of all time (well over $1B raised to date). And while Google Glass may not have been a success a couple of years ago, it was likely just ahead of its time.

Not willing to wait until the next evolution of these devices are launched and become mainstream, some retailers are beginning to test out the possibilities of mixed reality experiences via their mobile apps. Lowe’s is using MR technology to enhance the in-store experience with Lowe’s Vision, their app that guides customers through the store by overlaying a yellow pathway onto the real world store to help customers find items faster.

Furniture retailers Williams Sonoma and Wayfarer are using MR to help consumers visualize furniture products by superimposing them into their living room while at home. Clothing stores like the Gap are testing mixed reality to allow “shoppers to overlay different clothes and outfits to see how they look from a variety of angles before making a buying decision.”

Once the next generation of mixed reality devices take off, the possibilities and implications for retail will be dramatic. Every part of the experience, both at home and in-store, could be augmented with helpful tools and tips.

For grocery, MR will provide the shopper with a deeper, more helpful experience that keeps them connected across the entire path to purchase – from shopping, to purchasing, to consumption:

In Store

  • Providing a heads-up display of the shopping list
  • Guiding shoppers through aisles based on the contents of their shopping list
  • Overlaying products on shelves with personalized dietary information or coupons
  • Providing visual guides to determine if fruits/vegetables are ripe
  • Helping shoppers identify which products are needed for a recipe
  • Looking at a product and accessing product reviews in heads up display

At Home

  • Providing recipe recommendations based on the items in front of the consumer
  • Heads up display of step by step cooking instructions
  • Showing calorie / nutritional content of product in hand via heads up display

There is a wealth of opportunity and change lying in the years ahead for the grocery industry, thanks to technologies including voice assistants, chatbots and mixed reality. To set yourself up for success, keep an eye on the horizon while ensuring that you are building a solid technology foundation, as the shopping experience of tomorrow will be digital-first.

To learn more about how we’re keeping technology innovation at the forefront of our digital experience, request a demo.