The History of Retail Tech

Posted by Momentum Instore on 12 October 2018

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We're looking back over the decades at the evolution of in-store retail technology which has shaped the modern shopping experience.

When the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’, Harry Gordon Selfridge, founded Selfridges in 1909 little did he know that his vision for shopping for pleasure rather than necessity would become crucial in the 21st century.

The need to make shopping easier for both the consumer and the retail owner was the driving force behind the first innovative technologies.  These early inventions such as the cash register and the footfall counter are just as important in today’s world of retail.

As retail technology is no longer just a practical necessity, retail owners are facing new challenges as a result of the changing dynamics within the industry and technology evolution.  

The evolution of in-store retail technology

Let’s take a look at the advancements in retail technology and how it has shaped the industry:

Late 1800s – Introduction of adding machines
1940s – Credit cards emerged on the scene
1974 – The first barcode appeared on Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit packaging
1986 – Handheld bar code scanners were used to track packages
1992 – A New York supermarket installs the first self-checkout system
1997 – Coca Cola vending machines accept payment via mobile phone technology
2011 – QR codes appear in America
2012 – Sephora adds in-store iPads for customer use
2013 – Apple launches iBeacons to help retailers collect consumer data
2014 – Smart mirrors start interacting with customers
2015 – Starbucks launches national Mobile Order and Pay service
2016 – Rebecca Minkoff uses augmented reality for a 360-degree interactive fashion show
2017  Lowe’s launches augmented reality for shopper-friendly in-store navigation

History of the High Street’s milestones

The late 1800s witnessed the building of department stores; a complete shift from the smaller specialist stores which until then decorated our High Streets.  These large stores provided customers with a much wider choice of goods all under one roof, a new experience which shoppers of the time embraced.  

With the introduction of department stores came larger numbers of staff.  The first cash registers were very simple adding machines which enabled staff to lock money away securely in a till drawer while sounding a traditional bell noise.  Owners of these stores were keen to install these simplified tills as they were designed to alert managers to when they were in use and to deter staff from stealing cash.   

The use of credit cards altered spending patterns.  Retailers soon realised that customers who purchased goods on a credit card spent a great deal more than those using cash or cheques, with the added benefit of speeding up the number of customers they could serve at a till point.

Barcodes revolutionised retail operations.  Store managers and owners were at last able to manage their stock and reduce the waiting time at till point even further.  The scanning of barcodes eliminated the risk of cashiers tapping in any incorrect calculations too.  

The traffic counter was, and still is, one of the most important technologies in retail’s history.  Understanding footfall allows managers and owners to assess correct staffing levels to provide the best possible customer service experience.  


The future of the High Street

In just one decade retail has witnessed the most incredible advancements of technology. The retail owners of the 1900s could not have even dreamed of the possibilities available to today’s shopper.

The future of our high streets depends on how quickly retailers can react to changing trends.  Stores with innovative concepts and immersive approaches will lead the next generation of experiential retail.  

Technology to look out for

It has become common practice to interact with brands though chat-boxes, we speak to Siri on our phones and use voice-activation technologies such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home.  It’s only a matter of time when AI becomes commonplace outside of our homes too.

Studies have revealed that that 71% of retail shoppers would shop more at a store offering an AR experience and 61% prefer to shop in these stores over those that don’t create these immersive experiences.  

Digital shelf edges allow retailers to deliver promotional campaigns direct to product shelves and key merchandising areas.  Plans are underway to link this technology to shoppers’ mobile phones and to their electronic shopping lists.  Lights will appear on shelves to navigate the shopper around the store, eliminating the need to look for the next item on their list.    

Smart mirrors provide a fully immersive customer experience.  The mirrors can scan in faces and recommend make up and colours depending on the shape of face and skin tone.  And if a shopper wants to see what a certain item of clothing will look like on them without the hassle of undoing any buttons then the advanced technology will scan the item and place it on the person’s body in the mirror’s reflection.  

Tech-savvy stores across the globe are testing experiences only seen in science fiction films.  Talking robot assistants and virtual reality rooms offering immersive holographic and 3D experiences could just be around the corner.

One of today’s most vocalised gripe is waiting to pay for goods.  Technology is being pushed to find a solution for paying for goods anywhere in the store without the need to interact with an assistant or a till point.  The very British tradition of queueing may become a thing of the past – now that’s got to be a good thing!

Look out for our eBook 'Tech on the High Street' coming soon! 




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