Design Opportunity

Social | Thingness | High Street

NCR and new shopping experiences

Since developing the early cash registers in new the late 1800s the NCR Corporation have been shopping world leaders in the development of computer experiences hardware and electronics, and lead the field in the self-service kiosks, point-of-sale terminals, automated teller machines, check processing systems, barcode scanners, and business consumables. In many ways these machines are the very interface between material goods and immaterial databases. As shoppers approach the point of sale with their desired tangible item, it is the networked cash register that turns the physical object into data via a barcode before being bagged unceremoniously with a till receipt.

NCR have always known that ‘things’ exist in two places: as material (physical artefacts) and as immaterial (data within shop inventories). Whilst online shopping has developed sophisticated personalisation and user experience systems that support cross channel connections, the high street experience remains surprisingly limited. Shoppers treat shops as discrete suppliers, disconnected from surrounding stores and are forced to construct their own connections between shops to support the purchasing of series of things.


1. What it means to shop: Social

Shopping can be a highly social activity in which Opportunity friends, family, and indeed strangers, share experiences through engaging with ‘things’(see Miller 2005). We use shopping not only for acquisition but for adventure, gratification, inspiration and social connection; to explore and experiment with who we are (trying new looks, new foods) as much as to ground ourselves and affirm things to ourselves (nest building and purchases that signify we belong to certain groups). From window shopping, socialising over coffee and food, trying things on and eventually buying goods, shopping is a rich context in which objects and people come together on a daily basis.

Throughout the 20th century the spectrum of shopping experiences have broadened from a highly tailored experience in which shop keeper knows the customer well and is able to provide a highly personal product, to large branded department stores that stock the same seasonally modified products across the country (Carrier 1995). In our high streets technologies have most commonly served to disconnect the social and distance the shopper from other people.

The progressive development across the 20th Century in the scale of shops and the infrastructures to support them has led to a shift in the roles for members of staff and shoppers. On a small scale some shops still survive with the manager also taking the role of shopkeeper, shelf stacker, storeroom manager, and accountant. At the other end of the scale many high street employees are only aware of the frame within which they operate: shop floor, department etc. In the latter context many shop assistants are merely responsible for the movement of products from the shelves, through the tills and out of the door. With limited knowledge of the changing stock they have little emotional stake in the flow of things. With the advent of the self-service checkout some stores would prefer to hire employees who can fix machines rather than talk to shoppers, challenging the status of shops as spaces in which community and civil society are enacted.


2. What it means to shop: Thingness

Finding a synergy between the affordances of immaterial online shopping and the material experiences of shopping in the high street is extremely difficult but this is precisely the space of a user-led Internet of Things. Material objects that have an immaterial identity that can be mined in the same way that online shopping does at present, offering a context for the recovery of a personal shopping experience that has been lost in the modern high street of global brands.

The Connected High Street research recognises the scale of big data associated with the millions of things that sit on the shelves in high street shops and store-rooms. The project will use machine learning to identify the potential patterns and correlations that could be revealed if the silos of data within each store were combined with shops that were close by, and personal data that was volunteered by each shopper. The solutions that will be developed through the Connected High Street project will look forward toward to what happens when networked objects will begin to offer us recommendations and advice by mining all of the data that is hovering in the cloud just above our high streets.


3. What it means to shop: High Street

Perpetually connected to the internet and carrying a wide range of online shopping apps, the consumer is now in a very strong position to explore a multitude of options for the price that they should pay for goods. From books to electronics, clothes to food, smart shoppers are constantly searching for vouchers and internet deals. Many shoppers enter stores on the high street to touch and feel a product they have little intention to buy. Described as ‘showrooming’, shoppers are likely to walk into stores, test out a product by examining its size, weight, texture and in some cases performance, and use their Amazon app to order a cheaper version online (Campbell 2013).

With ‘red laser’ scanner apps in their hands, as well as direct connections to the virtual versions of the physical stores many shoppers are now carrying the equivalent of a NCR cash-registers in their pocket. Already experts in watching the fashions worn, carried and used by fellow shoppers, the high street is used as a market place for understanding what is cool, what is hot and what is not. Using smart phone apps shoppers are beginning to skip shops and buy directly from fellow shoppers by scanning barcodes on their clothes and products (TESCO shopping app allows users to add products to their online shopping basket by any found scanning barcodes).