The end of the queue? Smart technology could be the death of Britain’s favourite pastime

It feels like every day there is a new story saying that brick-and-mortar stores are obsolete, or that they are slowly dying. However, the winding queues I see in my town centre each week tell a very different story.

It’s a famous stereotype that the British love to queue, but everyone has their limits. All too often I’ll be greeted by a smiling store assistant as I enter, only to see a queue 10-people deep that makes me walk straight back out again. There is a lot more to offering a personable and profitable customer experience than just telling your customer to “have a lovely day”.

Today’s consumers are busy and stressed. Waiting around in queues is not something we really like to do. This is why technologies that promise to liberate us from the social awkwardness of shallow interactions and wasted time hold such promise.

I heard from one manager of an Oxford Street clothing store that their major problem was getting through the long queues that form at their popular store fast enough that they did not turn off new shoppers coming in through the doors. While Britons will join a small queue, and stay orderly while there, a big queue makes our hearts sink.

And staying with clothing stores, it can be embarrassing to ask for a different size, or to get measured up properly. Especially in a busy store, with no privacy. Perhaps after the winter when we’re looking for something for our summer holidays we don’t need the added pressure we imagine from the silent judgement of a store assistant as we struggle to fit our frames into a size that’s a little too tight. Generally, we like to find what we want, go where we want, and feel self-sufficient.

What can save us from our general social awkwardness whilst out in public, shopping, doing chores, or interacting with organisations? How can queuing and store navigation and retail social interaction be made more bearable?

The answer, as with other tricky situations, from dating to needing to ask for directions, will come from new uses of technologies already out there.

Not your grandmother’s video

Most retail environments are very familiar with last century’s video technologies – but modern video technology is not the analogue, man-in-a-booth surveillance technology that’s been in use for decades (sometimes without an upgrade) in the backroom of a major store.

Smart video is the edgy newcomer in the room. With a foot in ‘video’, and of interest to the security manager, it’s of far more use to the business at large than analogue footage could ever be. IP connected, like IT equipment, and therefore digital, smart video can be combined with analytics to count, measure speed, map areas, and monitor interactions and behaviours for far more than spotting a shoplifter or laboriously catch out a slip ‘n’ trip fraudster – at the cost of hours of a team member’s time.

The use of smart technology can increase business understanding and actionable business intelligence. With real-time analytics observing the events happening on the shop floor, companies can open up a new world of data and insight that wouldn’t be available in the analogue days. These data insights can show retailers where the best place to position stock is, if they are under staffed in certain areas, if the customer journey is optimised for that store – and can shine light on performance issues too.

What’s more, these analytics – which can be thought of as a friendly ‘terminator’ vision; tracking and counting – can be trained through artificial intelligence to become smarter, and through automation can be trained to alert staff or take decisions in terms of situations. For example it could spot when queues have grown too long (no more than six people, say, so people don’t get turned off by the sight when they enter the store). Additionally, AI can use smart video to monitor zones for stock or displays that have fallen over or been moved from their merchandising display location, or spot when a zone has too high a density of visitors, for safety.

These simple actions would take an army of store assistants, monitoring, talking and acting as one to replicate. With AI assisting, alerting and advising, store assistants can effectively cover more ground, be more productive, and extend their awareness well beyond their line of sight.

Moving into other uses, when combined with exciting technologies enjoyed more commonly in stores abroad, smart video can even accurately size customers, or show then what they’d look like on other items, or change the colour of the outfit they are wearing in a ‘magic mirror’.

For the high rollers in more exclusive stores, a measure of facial recognition will help store assistants know who is who, and just how high their status is. It could also help them weed out known fraudsters. Likewise in the bank, customers can be identified, and criminals spotted as they come to the door, each receiving the appropriate care and attention!

Putting real-world business intelligence into the traditional BI landscape

The benefits of business intelligence technology can extend far beyond just customer care. It can also impact various areas from customer care, warehouse management, compliance, health and safety, to marketing, merchandising and employee scheduling. Arguably, with the right strategy, there’s not a team within the business that won’t be both brought together and individually boosted. This isn’t a loss prevention technology, it’s a business information and management one.

Scott Brothers is EVP Corporate Development, Oncam