I had the pleasure of being a host on the Salesforce Commerce Cloud Store Tour at the NRF Big Show earlier this week. It was great to spend time in our customers’ stores, chat with our guests on the tour and, I realized later, get a glimpse of the future of retail, as that’s what we had seen by the tour’s end.

Calling it a “glimpse” is important because these weren’t futuristic, concept stores but rather real, open-for-business stores where we rubbed elbows with actual shoppers and store associates. But still, what we saw was not only innovative, but also hit at practically every major trend in retail.

Our first stop was the New Balance store. The very fact that New Balance has stores at all is interesting, as its history is largely tied to wholesale. But it has experimented with different store formats in recent years, and now has locations around the world. New Balance has also expanded its international digital commerce business in recent years, powered by Commerce Cloud.

New Balance stores are part of its strategy to connect the brand more directly with its customers. In fact, the connection serves its mission to “aid athletes in their pursuit of excellence.” Its stores support this mission and brand strategy. “We have created a space that allows for deeper engagement with consumers and athletes to facilitate clear, consistent storytelling that will truly elevate the energy and momentum behind our brand,” said a New Balance representative in an article about a similar store opening at the company’s headquarters near Boston.

In the New York store, we saw a number of elements intended to connect with customers. The product selection itself does so, as it’s an “in-line” store, meaning that the store carries only the latest and hottest products. So, practically every visit to the store gives the consumer a fresh dose of New Balance’s product innovations.

One corner of the store serves as a workshop for hand-assembled shoes, each featuring a selection of colors and materials unique to that store. As a finishing touch, the shoes assembled in the store come with “NYC” stitched on the back to further distinguish them. “Tourists love them,” said the store manager, as does anyone looking not just for a New Balance shoe but one that captures the essence of that specific location.

If the uniqueness of the NYC shoe isn’t enough, shoppers can interact with New Balance’s online shoe customizer. The interactive screen is huge and inviting, and is enhanced by fabric and material samples arrayed around the screen, so shoppers can see and feel the choices being presented to them on screen.

Finally, we also saw the store’s Aetrex iStep machine, which scan a shopper’s feet to asses their pressure points to help determine the best shoe for them. Store associates then interpret the results and recommend shoes based on the analytical outputs.

All these things were part of a true downtown New York environment – metal, concrete, exposed pipes, very industrial cool.

Our next stop was True Religion Brand Store. One step inside and it’s clear that True Religion is not your average denim brand, nor is it your average store.

Digital signage is designed to get people in the door and hold their attention. But the attention-grabbers don’t stop with cool jeans and ads.

A large interactive screen sits in the middle of the store. “You can play with it, consumers can play with it, but it’s really for the store associates,” says our tour guide John Hazen, Senior Vice President of Direct-to-Consumer. Their job is to make sure consumers find the product they’re looking for. An interaction with a shopper often starts by taking them to the screen, hearing what they have in mind, and using the rich imagery and product information to explore what’s available.

Actually, the store associates often get a jump start on that consumer interaction thanks to an Apple Watch app that alerts them when a registered customer (who has previously opted in) enters the store. Beacons note their arrival, and feed store associates with relevant data about the individual. They also have access to product information on the watch, and with a flick of the wrist can send it to the larger screen to show relevant products to the consumer. (see below)

Store associates also have a rich clienteling app that provides even more information about customers,  empowering associates to review purchase history and other information to personalize shoppers’ in-store interaction.This is crucial for True Religion, whose core customers are loyal shoppers who often visit the store weekly.

One last note: you’re not going to find a more charismatic, genuine and passionate advocate for retail innovation and unified/omni-channel experiences than John Hazen. It’s no wonder he’s a sought-after speaker at industry conferences, including Salesforce’s own events.

The last stop on our tour was to M. Gemi, the (mostly) online business founded to bring high-quality footwear direct from Italian workshops to consumers at prices that it says are “fair, not inflated.”

Understanding the importance of the experience in shopping for high-end shoes, M. Gemi opened what it calls a “Try-On Shop” in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Consumers can browse and try on its products, get fit and fashion advice – and also enjoy some Italian treats (wine, pastries, etc.) in a pleasant and relaxing environment. The one thing shoppers can’t do is walk out the door with a new pair of shoes.

Instead, when consumers are ready to buy something from M. Gemi, store associates use an iPad running Commerce Cloud’s endless aisle application to place an order for them, similar to how they might order it themselves on the web site. For shoes in stock, delivery takes only a few days. For custom shoes, it may take a few weeks, while the Italian workshops craft the shoe just for that consumer.

Importantly, M. Gemi has determined that its stores convert at rates higher than the average, and customers who visit the store buy more, return less and order more online later.

To summarize, here’s what we saw that I expect we’ll see a lot more of in the future and, in some cases, what we’re seeing a lot of already:

  • Brands forming new, direct relationship with consumers through stores – like New Balance growing beyond its wholesale and even digital commerce roots to experiment with store formats
  • Growing emphasis on the customer experience – M. Gemi’s Italian treats, and True Religions’ attention-grabbing ads
  • Unique products specific to locations – New Balance’s “NYC” shoes only available in that particular store, helps motivate purchase, even while remarketing opportunities await
  • Value-added experience in store – New Balance’s material samples surrounding the online customization tool, and the Aetrex machine mean shoppers get something they can’t anywhere else
  • Blurring of in-store and online inventory, and the growing importance of accurate in-store inventory – John Hazen sees a world of further possibilities for more digital in-store experiences at True Religion, but they’re all dependent on the store inventory data being accurate
  • In-store shoppers shifting from anonymous to known – True Religion’s Apple Watch and clienteling app help create a customized experience
  • New in-store skills required – the M. Gemi store manager told me her hiring profile for store associates is different than it would be for a traditional store
  • Showrooming by design – you can’t walk out with anything at M. Gemi

That’s a wrap. We can’t wait to see what next year’s Store Tour brings?