Tired of going into a store and finding no one to answer your questions?
In the retail store of the future that problem may disappear. No more hunting down a sales clerk and hoping they know enough to explain the differences between each model of digital camera or power drill.
Instead, pick up the telephone at a kiosk, where you'll be connected via live video to an expert, who could be hundreds of miles away at a call center. The expert will be armed with a variety of tools to satisfy customer questions: store maps, product details, inventory status and access to the Web.
These live customer support kiosks were one of the newest technologies showcased last month at the National Retail Federation convention. As the nation's largest retailers continue to look for ways to make their businesses more efficient, they're increasingly turning to technology for help.
"Retail is a pretty simple business, but what adds complexity is the size and scale," said Home Depot chairman Bob Nardelli, whose company is spending more than $500 million a year on technology. "We couldn't do it without technology."
At the future Home Depot, loyal customers would be greeted by name after their cell phones notify employees they've arrived. Radio frequency identification tags attached to merchandise allow customers to check out using a retina scanner or entering a personal identification number.
Instead of mass-market ads, customers get personalized ads based on their buying patterns.
"We think this will evolve into a customized, private shopper" experience, Nardelli said. "Customers are becoming much more selective, more aspirational and discerning."
Picking out the perfect wine is also a lot easier at the gourmet grocery store of the future.
Swipe the bottle of syrah on a special "hot spot" kiosk and you'll be able to read reviews of the vintage, find out what foods it goes well with and what other wines would be similar. The secret: the radio frequency identification tag embedded on the hangtag.
Those same identification tags enable store employees to know when the shelves are running low on pinot noir or track whether someone takes a bottle without paying for it.
The high-tech wine cave is just one part of the X06 gourmet market of the future. Designed by a combination of technology giants including IBM, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Intel, the market aims to give retailers a firsthand view of how they could use technology to make shopping more entertaining, informative and efficient.
"A lot of what's important to customers today is how to make the shopping experience more pleasant," said Stephen Sparrow, retail industry marketing manager for Microsoft. "For a retailer to compete, there needs to be something that makes the customer say, 'I feel better when I come in your store.' "
The market included interactive displays, where as soon as a customer picks up a chocolate bar or package of truffles, a video screen displays product information.
At the live support kiosk, an expert from a call center can help the customer find recipes for a dinner party and display a map of the store highlighting where to find the items.