Virtual Flat Lady Now Chattering Away At The Bay

February 23, 2012 by Dave Haynes

The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, has a piece up this week about retail marketing technology and the latest appearance of the talking flat lady – those virtual greeters that use projectors, Vikuiti film and actors who have no tendencies for talking with their hands.

The concept was interesting four or so years ago when it first started showing up, but it’s now look a bit quaint.

In this case, the Toronto flagship of the 340-year-old (honestly, started with fur trade) retailer is using a 5 feet, 8 inches plexiglas greeter-bot named Anna to welcome shoppers and get them interested in a new interactive display of high-end gifts put together by a local company, 4D Retail Technology Corporation.

The Bay, says the story, introduced Anna last month to spotlight its new gift section, which consists of several video walls featuring such items as a $1,295 Versace watch and $1,190 iPod dock. Shoppers can purchase one of the products by touching the shelf it’s sitting on with a QR code-embedded card; a real employee fetches the gift-wrapped item from a back room.

4D Retail Technology Corp poured hundreds of thousands of dollars developing the system but doesn’t charge the Bay for using it in exchange for the prominent main-floor display space, said Alison Coville, a senior vice-president at the Bay.

She expects the system can lift sales 10 to 15 per cent in the gift section, while also encouraging shoppers to head to other departments of the store. “If it gets you a couple of percentage points of [sales] increases over time because shoppers are returning to the store — or coming back and looking in other areas — it’s really more of a marketing tool than anything else.”

The new tech tools aren’t without their drawbacks. Older customers tend to shy away from digital schemes. The devices sometimes need technical updates. Anna was put on autopilot for a few days, simply smiling and blinking, to prepare for an upcoming upgrade.

Laura Mingail, who passed by Anna last month, was impressed by her striking image. “She definitely does a good job at grabbing my attention.” Still, Ms. Mingail appreciated that when she returned to the section last week there was a real sales person. When buying pricey jewellery or tech toys, “I’d rather speak to a human.”

I don’t see the virtual presenter thing ever getting past novelty item. The endlessly chattering greeter will make staff crazy, first of all. But the bigger problems are the maintenance costs of projectors and the amount of floor space needed to allow a full-height projection. Nonetheless, the raging river of press release emails and booth invites I am getting from DSE these days seems to have mentioned a greeter or two will be yapping at me on the trade show floor in two weeks.

The stacked back-to-back monitors thing that 4D (never heard of them) is showing at the Bay is kinda interesting in how it cleverly blends a fixture and merchandising shelves with desktop grade monitors that they’re probably getting for way less than $100 a pop. This produces decent impact without a bunch of big costs. It also goes completyely to hell if even one of the panels blinks out.

I’d tell you more about 4D but the website is minimal and all Flash-based. In 2012, calling yourself technology innovators in a world of 10s of millions of iPads that can’t even show you a Flash site is, umm, loopy.


photo: Michele Siu for The Globe and Mail

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