Extending web experiences into retail

Something that’s been on my mind recently is the merger of technologies and experiences that exist on the web and retail locations. Here are some examples to illustrate what I’m talking about:

  • Most hotels maintain a list of nearby restaurants and other stores — to get this list, I have to call someone up on the phone and get them to read the information to me or I have to walk downstairs and get a print copy of it. And then, I’m left with a paper copy of the information and it’s hard for me to make comparisons from there of, say, the hotel’s rating of those restaurants to the ratings of those restaurants on Yelp or Citysearch. Why doesn’t the hotel publish all this information on a hotel intranet all of the listings displayed on a map? Even better, why don’t they make this information available to prospective guests?
  • And the hotel concierge has all kinds of other information — directions to nearby attractions, directions to the airport, guides to the city’s public transport, train schedules, etc. Same as above — this stuff should be on a hotel intranet that’s searchable.
  • Any place where I spend a lot of time talking to a human being answering questions and making choices, there should be a web-like experience that can be brought in. Kiosks have already completely changed the way we check-in for flights here in the U.S. Car rental companies need to take note here — they still typically require you to talk to someone and answer various questions. However, on a recent trip, I rented from Alamo and I went through the whole process of “filling out my car rental paperwork” without talking to a human being — I did everything on a kiosk. It included all the steps in the process from “do you want to upgrade your rental?” to “do you want to pay for insurance?”. I loved it. Hotels should do the same thing — I used an automatic check-in once at the Hyatt Grand Central and I loved it too. I could go on and on with examples here — this particular line of thinking might hold the most opportunities. Just yesterday, I went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the lines were way too long (I should have guessed it, but when it rains in Houston, the museums do mad business). They should have a bunch of kiosks that sell everything from yearly memberships to exhibit tickets.
  • One of the simplest but coolest things that Apple does in their retail stores is they give you unfettered web access (well mostly unfettered — I bet they were blocking access to http://jailbreakme.com/ :-) ). Apart from attracting people to Apple Stores to use Macs to check their e-mail and surf the web, it means shoppers can search for product reviews and more product information. It effectively brings search technology into the retail experience (though in a non-integrated way). I was recently looking for a bag that my wife could use to carry her Macbook so I parked myself at a Mac in an Apple store where I searched for laptop bag reviews, browsed through the Apple Store’s inventory of laptop bags (figuring that the Apple Store was a good filter on the domain of available laptop bags out there), and got exact dimensions for the Macbook (so I could figure out which bags would fit the Macbook and which wouldn’t). Retail stores should recognize the role that the web plays in people’s buying decisions and do a better job of making it available within their stores.
  • Why do I have to walk up to a store clerk and have them tell me whether they have inventory on a particular item? I’d like to be able to search the store’s inventory myself to see what they do or don’t have in-stock. Yeah, I understand that inventory counts are typically plus or minus a few units. If I could search the inventory sitting at home, all the better. And I don’t just want to search — it would be nice to be able to browse as well, like I can browse departments and categories on amazon.com, except I just want to see stuff that’s in the store. I read this article in the New York Times about EveryScape, a company that’s doing 3D tours of storefronts. The example they give in the article is the Harvard Coop (a bookstore). But looking at photographs of bookstore shelves is the last way I, personally, want to browse a bookstore’s inventory. I want more of an online search and browse interface (like what amazon.com offers).
  • When I walk into a store, it would be useful and cool to see what the top-selling items in that store are and for larger stores (e.g. Target) it would be nice to see this information by department. What was the top-selling DVD at the Target near my house in Houston, TX? Retailers should be harnessing this data to enhance the shopping experience for their customers.

I don’t think there’s a name for this trend, but I basically want the experiences that I have when I’m not using my computer (or my phone) to be more web-like.