You can’t try it all. But you should try a lot.

Everybody knows the future of retail is digital, but not everybody agrees on the best way to digitally innovate. But some of the best retailers in the world have discovered a model called Rapid Prototyping. In RPT – you identify new technologies that are worth exploring. You spend weeks, days, or even sometimes just 24 hours building demos of those technologies in action. You learn how the various platforms work and can quickly determine which concepts are candidates to be tested in production and which should be placed in the backlog and revisited once the technology has matured.

We have worked with Fortune 500 retailers and startups alike to prototype some concepts that have changed the course of a company, and others that were quickly scrapped due to feasibility, risk, or poor results. It’s all part of the process of digital innovation – the only thing that consistently works is consistently trying new things.

Here are three technologies that performed well in 2018. Expect to see more of these this year.

Progressive Web Apps

West Elm's Progressive Web App
West Elm’s Progressive Web App

More often than not, an App is not a suitable replacement for a retail website. It’s a whole different experience and should be treated as such. But, web developers sometimes wish they could incorporate certain elements of an app into their website – fluid, fast animations, support for offline mode, integrated payment, push notifications. A Progressive Web App is Google’s effort to combine a web experience and a native app.

West Elm was one of the early pioneers to create a mobile web experience with the help of a Progressive Web App. In an early test against their main mobile experience, they saw a 15% increase in time spent on site and a 9% lift in revenue per user.

Augmented Reality

Until we’re all wearing AR equipped glasses on our faces, the technology will be limited to novelty status in most applications. However, furniture companies have been testing AR to create virtual showrooms so that users can imagine what a certain couch or lamp looks like in their living room. Ikea, Wayfair, and even Amazon have all launched AR experiences so that you can try before you buy. More importantly, now that Apple, which is typically the last to go mainstream with a new technology, supports AR natively, many believe we’ve crossed a tipping point. But don’t take someone’s word for it – we created this quick AR demo in less than a day. Rapidly prototyping a concept and testing it out with your potential customers is the way to go.

Machine Learning Matching Algorithms

One of the dark secrets of the digital retail world is how fickle users are. Half of them will land on a page without clicking on a single item. When you have seconds to catch a user’s attention, how do you select which inventory to show? You use machine learning. More specifically, you integrate with platforms like Clarif.ai, which makes it easy to build models and train classifiers. With this approach, you can scan images and identify styles that could then be matched to your inventory. Want to see it in action? Check out this neat tool by West Elm that imports your Pinterest board and returns furniture that fits your style.

On the other hand…

Not every prototype makes it to prime time. We built a few different implementations of chatbots for customer service and product curation. At the end of the day, the experience was not compelling enough to drive results, so the projects were put on hold. That doesn’t mean they won’t turn the corner this year or the next, but life is a series of choices and so is retail innovation.

I hope you enjoyed this quick roundup. If you have questions, ideas, or just want to talk shop, shoot me an email at andrew at sfappworks dot com.