If the innovation fits

Aldo’s new ‘connected store’ upgrades the shoe retailer’s app functionality

Decades ago, when the first wave of dramatic breakthroughs in consumer technology landed, naysayers were quick to ask what benefit, besides a coolness factor, 25-pound laptops and brick-sized cell phones could bring to everyday life? Technology’s capabilities and its degree of social integration have expanded exponentially since then, and finding a niche for all that innovation is no longer a problem. Today’s consumer demands a high degree of convenience, service and efficiency when shopping, and technology is making it all possible.

Aldo’s new “connected store” concept at the World Trade Center complex in New York City, serves as a shining example. Store technologies are integrated with the Aldo smartphone app to offer enhanced levels of customer convenience. On its own, the app allows customers to browse product offerings, coordinate looks (such as shoes with accessories), locate sizes at their local store and purchase online. When an app-enabled customer enters the WTC store, the app’s functionality instantly expands; a beacon allows the customer’s smartphone to interface with the store’s capabilities.

Aldo’s “endless shelf” contains detailed information on virtually the entire product line.

Aldo’s “endless shelf” contains detailed information on virtually the entire product line.

Increasing engagement

Arriving at this milestone required a partnership between Montreal-based Aldo’s in-house IT team and the Kinetic Commerce platform from global design, innovation and technology firm Kinetic Cafe.

The selling floor at the WTC store features several interactive and integrated touchpoints, including an “endless shelf” which appears on both wall-mounted screens and iPads available to customers. The shelf contains detailed information on virtually the entire product line, high resolution images and the status of the store’s inventory in real time. It even allows the customer to request products to try on.

The app and the endless shelf are supported by a data hub, or backend platform, which supplies complete product and inventory information to both. All three were developed by Kinetic.

Sales associates can use their tablets to scan any item on display and instantly obtain a wealth of product information.

The retailer’s new associate-facing tool, developed by Aldo’s in-house technology team, works in tandem with Kinetic Commerce’s contributions. This innovation allows sales associates to use their tablets to scan any item on display and instantly obtain a wealth of information — the sizes and colors the item is offered in and the stock level on hand (also broken down by size and color).

Here’s where the technology’s convenience kicks in. “If the customer wishes to try something on, the associate can use an onscreen icon to request a runner to deliver said item to the floor, so the customer is never left unattended,” says Gregoire Baret, Aldo’s senior director of omnichannel experience. An increased level of customer engagement, such as the technology facilitates, has been shown to boost conversions and lead to higher transaction totals.

At present the associate-facing application has been rolled out to 100 Aldo stores, while the endless shelf is featured at 25 top-tier locations. Getting the company to this point was anything but an overnight process, and involved close collaboration with the team at Kinetic Commerce. “We spent one year doing demographic research on our customers and associates — analyzing what they want from their total shopping experience,” Baret says.

“We found that shoppers don’t want to spend large amounts of time in the mall. They usually have specific products and a specific destination store in mind. We also found that up to 30 percent of customers prefer to use their smartphone to obtain product information before interacting with a sales associate.” The team’s findings also revealed that while customers want their autonomy respected, sometimes they need associate input for their inevitable questions — how a pair of shoes works with a handbag, for example.

The research proved very instructive, and served as a useful guide in designing the way the new technology would relate to its users. Staffers at Kinetic worked with the Aldo team and used the information to brainstorm concepts for the new platform. Those efforts proved to be a testimony to their strong level of commitment.

“Kinetic illustrated dozens of creative concepts for Aldo’s ‘Store of the Future’ through a combination of hand-drawn sketches, storyboards and experience maps,” says David Dougherty, Kinetic’s president and chief innovation officer. “We created a series of interactive prototypes that were used for early executive demonstrations and user testing. This all led to the completion of two functional prototype stores — one at each of Aldo’s and Kinetic’s offices — that continue to be used for controlled testing, collaboration and co-creation.”

The testing alone consumed another year. Beginning in November 2015, different concepts were tested at some 25 stores; after further refinement they were brought together and rolled out at as a pilot program at WTC store’s August opening.

Continued innovation

As Aldo observed the performance of the new technology, the value of its pre-development research became evident. “Right now we’re in the process of introducing the associate-facing application, and we’ve been visiting our pilot stores where it’s been introduced to train the teams and obtain their feedback,” says Kamyar Arjomand, director of mobile experience for Aldo.

“Being able to stay by the customer’s side allows the associate to better contextualize the product and render higher quality service.”

Kamyar Arjomand

“The response from both associates and customers has been fantastic. Before, the interruption when the team member went to fetch the stock disrupted the associate/customer relationship. Being able to stay by the customer’s side allows the associate to better contextualize the product and render higher quality service.”

Despite a promising initial rollout, the company is taking a slow but steady approach to implementing the new concepts companywide. “We’re currently still in pilot mode, and haven’t yet approved rolling out everything to all the stores,” Arjomand says. “We’ll be introducing the associate app and the mobile phone app with the store-detecting beacons [at] 165 stores by the end of 2016. We’re waiting on rolling out the endless shelf piece for the time being.”

But the nature of innovation means that it’s a process that is never completed, a fact not lost on the team at Kinetic. “The prototypes are a great way to get all stakeholders involved and get a comprehensive understanding of the full user experience. They also allow the team to make early refinements prior to any further investment in development,” Dougherty says.

This article was published in the December 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.