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Hopping on Technology - The Semantic Web
by Daniel Hopping

Do you remember when there were phone booths everywhere? When PCs had 30 Meg hard drives, 512K of memory and PC communication were 2400 bps? When phone messages came on little slips of paper? When Automated Teller Machines were still new technology? News and weather were only on TV at 6 pm and 10 pm. We were angry about gas prices going above $1.00. It was 1985 and there was no commercial Internet, no Web, and those UPC codes were not yet everywhere. Retailing had not changed much in the previous twenty years. Wal-Mart only had 882 stores mostly in the South and few thought that they would be a threat to the big five. There were no supercenter stores.

Just twenty years ago our lives were very different. We have changed how we work, how we play, how we shop. Much of the change has been due to technology developed during that same twenty years. Now most of us canít imagine living without the Web or Cable TV. We canít imagine going out without our cell phone. As workers and consumers, we have become dependent on technology that was a dream only twenty years ago. We have raised our expectations of the companies we work for and the stores we shop in. We have become very technologically sophisticated.

For about five years, the graduates of colleges and universities have entered the workforce more technically savy than most of the companies that hired them. They got their assignments from their professors on the Intranet and turned in their work on the Intranet. When they worked on projects with other students, they were doing Web collaboration. They were using Portals. Most of them are more comfortable dealing with a video screen such as a kiosk or digital merchandising than they are dealing with a human. I think it is safe to say that they are all comfortable on the Web.

I am predicting that we will see more change in the next five to eight years than we have seen in the last twenty years. This change will be brought about by technology that is just now emerging from research and development labs. The biggest changes will be in how we communicate. These changes will be enabled by the Semantic Web, the Next Generation Internet and Bluetooth. The Web will know what you want. It will be a thousand times faster that the current Web and you will have a wireless, Personal Area Network surrounding you.

Every time we accept a new technology like scanning or self checkout, we are quicker to accept the next technology. It took a long time for ATMs and scanning to be widely accepted but self checkout has now become widespread. I regularly see people waiting in the self checkout line where I shop while there is a human lane open. The Intelligent Shopping Cart such as the Stop & Shop Shopping Buddy has been quickly accepted by itís users. Communications devices seem to be the most accepted of the newer technologies.

Interpersonal communications
There are about 1.5 Billion cell phones on the planet this year and they are selling at over 600 Million per year. Most of these new model phones have Bluetooth and Internet access. This means that within three years there will be a critical mass of customers carrying a device into the store that the retailer will be able to communicate with. It will change the relationship between the consumer and the retailer.

The new cell phones have amazing features on them; Web connections, TV shows, Lottery games, text messaging, MP3 players, Bluetooth, GPS, digital cameras, video cameras. In Japan with the 3G, DoCoMo phone you can have your cell phone surf the crowd nearby and decide if there is anyone you want to talk to. Data transmission is at 11Mbps, it has an RFID reader, the phone is a mobile electronic wallet with about 20,000 stores in Japan able to talk to it, itís your credit card, smart card, house key, it has an Adobe .pdf reader, it has videophone capability, music player, 3D surround sound and text messaging. By the way they can still make old fashion voice calls.

If we want to see how communications will change our lives in the short term, we should look to Japan and Korea. They are years ahead of North America in telecom. In Japan you can scan a product in a retail store with your cell phone and find out who else is selling the same product and for how much. You can then buy it in the store or order it over the Web on the phone.

Forbes Magazineís May 23rd issue has a great article on the entertainment future of these new phones but I think the retailer benefit will come from the short range communications. This wonít make things easier for IT, but, it has the capability to make the shopping experience more compelling for the consumer. The issue for the retail marketing folks is, what will you say to the consumer when they are standing in the store in front of merchandise, trying to make a decision. Think of the increased complexity of promotions and merchandising for this interaction.

So how will we understand the customer well enough to create the compelling shopping experience that will cause them to travel past the competitorís store to shop your store? We will have to use technology to create and deliver knowledge. Then we will have to build an environment that can evolve into the next generation store without having to throw away systems along the way.

Blogs have become commonplace and retailers are using them to create buzz and surfing them to see how their promotions and new store formats are being received by the consumer. But Blogs are old hat now, you should check out the newest form of information paradigm called a Wiki Ė a Wiki is like an open source Blog on steroids. Wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia that allows anyone in the world to contribute their content. Everyone is an expert on something. Now anyone can write their own chapter in the global encyclopedia or at least correct someone elseís entry. A retailer has many experts in the stores and headquarters who no longer have time to think or to share. A Wiki is an example of a new technology that can allow the sharing of key items of information as easily as writing a note or an instant message. When the information is viewed as a whole Ė it can enable wisdom.

I am working to create a retail insight Wiki so that IBMís retail domain experts around the world can contribute thoughts, observances, happenings, ideas, and epiphanies. This would then become a living, evolving domain of knowledge that will allow us to better understand what we see happening around us. This is the new world of knowledge management.

The Next Generation Store
Many of the retail projects to build the Next Generation Store that I am aware of are working to make the store a delight to shop in. However, most of these projects are not even building the current state of the art store. If they start with the technology available now, and then take two years to roll it out, they will have a two year-old store format and may have to throw some of it away to put in the then latest technology. The best of the next generation store projects that I have seen are examining the evolution of the consumer attitudes toward shopping. If you understand how the consumer got to where they are now, you can better predict where they will be in five to ten years. The consumer will have more and different touch points than they have now. They will be much more sophisticated. They will demand more from their shopping experience.

I would like to recommend that you obtain the executive brief from the IBM Institute for Business Value entitled; The Customer Centric Store, delivering the total experience.

Daniel Hopping is a global technology futurist, author, consultant and speaker. With four decades of hands-on experience, Danís area of expertise is forecasting the impact that technology will have on the retail industry and tomorrowís consumer.

Copyright © Daniel Hopping. All rights reserved.

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