Shopping in Silicon Valley

Will Bowman spent four months in San Francisco and experienced the near-future of retail.

I recently spent four months working in the heart of Silicon Valley. Before departing I was half expecting to be welcomed at San Francisco airport by an A.I. driven, human-like robot that would escort me to a driverless car. That didn't happen. But I was in for many unexpected, tech-driven treats during my stay.

Naturally - as this sprawling valley is home to almost all of the worlds major tech companies - every facet of life has been improved by computer scientists, engineers, and other creative minds.

Being a consumer in this computer-centric community proved very enjoyable, with retailers being the beneficiaries of a host of different apps, services, and in-store aids that effortlessly improve their product's reach and appeal.

It's only a matter of time before New Zealand catches up, of course, but on arrival back to Auckland I was left with an unquenchable consumerist thirst. This is what I miss and what our retail scene doesn't know it's missing.

There's an app for that

Never has this statement rung more true. Just like Uber is for delivering people, Postmates is for  delivering, well, anything. A simple but ingenious idea.

Like Uber, where drivers are constantly 'active' before your phone sends a notification that you'd like to be picked up, a Postmates driver gets a notification that you'd like them to pick something up for you.

Whether it be a burger because you forgot your lunch, new batteries for your remote because you've had one too many pinots on a Friday night, or even a bag of compost for a spot of Sunday gardening. Anything.

There is just no way this wouldn't be popular in a city like Auckland, where driving across town to pick something up is stressful enough to make even the most patient person weep. A similar bicycle-courier business, Urban Sherpa, launched last year but currently only services the inner city.

Think about the things you haven't bought because it just wasn't convenient. Or the time wasted in transit because you decided you absolutely had to have it.

Power to the people

Big cities are great – massive hubs of retail heaven. You can easily get lost in these bustling hubs for hours on end. That’s exactly what happened to me in San Francisco, much to the delight of their local economy. But, when my phone died, I was left with only one goal – find a power point for my charger.

No power point was available, but instead, something better; a station full of portable chargers in a café. How great! Free phone juice while I had an orange juice.

It dawned on me that this was a bloody fantastic idea and that surely it’s a more universal thing. A bit of Googling confirmed this. Most major retailers in the area had “charging stations” in-store. What better way to entice people into a longer stay in your store?

Today, if that works?

Unfortunately I didn’t stumble across this gem until my final few weeks in the area: Amazon Prime. That is, Amazon’s premium subscription service. It is the stuff of retail dreams.

It was a Thursday evening when a mountain bike ride was organised for Saturday. The nature of the ride required mountain-bike-specific footwear. Footwear that couldn’t be bought in the area in time for Saturday.

So, after hearing of my dilemma, a workmate suggested signing up to Amazon Prime. I wasn’t sold at the initial suggestion, until they mentioned that I’d be able to purchase and receive whatever was purchased the same day or early the next. Incredible. Surely not possible.

It was possible, and I received my new mountain bike shoes mid-morning Friday.

Obviously this isn’t a service that can be used by other retailers, however it’s a great insight into where the industry is heading. And when you consider the imminent arrival of Amazon Prime Air – their delivery system that uses drones to get packages to customers within 30 minutes – the future retail landscape is looking quite…futuristic.

The pick of the bricks

Stepping away from delivery and into an actual store (yes, they exist in Silicon Valley), I thought it would be amiss to not mention the Apple Store. I think it’d be more aptly dubbed the Apple Gallery.

The company doesn’t just innovate in technology. These stores are a serious win for the bricks and mortar believers. Unfortunately, we don’t have the privilege of one in New Zealand yet, so let me paint a picture for you.

No cash registers or clunky card machines. Subtle but enjoyable difference. Instead, mobile card readers and beautifully designed receipts that are sent to your email. No frivolous wasting of paper here.

Then there are the products themselves – the artwork in the gallery. They sit atop very aesthetically pleasing tables, and they way they’re spaced makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room when you take them for a demo spin. The layout is stunning.

Finally, the Apple Genuis Bar. Ron Johnson, the former senior VP for retail referred to the Genius Bar as the “heart and soul of our stores.” Ron was right.

Not only do the “Genuises” know absolutely everything there is to know about each product, they are unfathomably friendly without overdoing it and seem to deal with any issue you have with care and attention.

So, as well as being the undeniable Mecca for all things tech, the "valley" also punches well above its weight in the world of retail. Sure, these retail delights are mostly America-wide phenomena, but they certainly aren't a part of our lives in little old New Zealand.

There is plenty to learn from some of these companies and the way they operate. And I'm sure we'll be in their league soon. Who knows where they'll be when we catch up, though. Augmented reality stores in your own house, anyone?

This story originally appeared on The Register