Short on time? Holiday shopping will be different (and easier) this year

DAYTON, Ohio -- New technologies will allow shoppers to make their choices quicker and with more confidence as retailers battle to make the consumers' lives easier as the holiday shopping season heats up.

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Holly Shively
, Cox Newspapers

DAYTON, Ohio -- New technologies will allow shoppers to make their choices quicker and with more confidence as retailers battle to make the consumers' lives easier as the holiday shopping season heats up.

Now in November and with holiday shopping picking up, retailers are expecting online shopping to increase nearly 15 percent, according to Adobe Analytics.

The jump in e-commerce is forcing retailers to put new technology at the forefront of efforts to stay competitive as consumers determine where and how they'll buy gifts this year.

"Technology is currently remaking every facet of the customer journey -- from how we search for products and comparison shop to how we pay for items," said Beck Besecker, founder and CEO of Marxent, a designer and creator of augmented reality and virtual reality.

Marxent has developed virtual reality to help Macy's customers visualize furniture within their homes. Besecker said a growing number of apps are also allowing shoppers to visualize products without ever having to step out the door.

Retailers who haven't invested in augmented reality are going to miss out on increased sales this winter and "probably spend 2019 scrambling to catch up," he said.

Virtual reality is also being used to teach store workers how to handle crowds during the holiday. The technology, used at 198 Walmart training academies, has helped Walmart develop new strategies to make holiday shopping more efficient.

And retailers are bolstering their online selections, with most of the hot Black Friday deals also happening during specific times online, said Tiffany Chalmers, executive team leader at Target in Beavercreek, Ohio.

"Shopping basically can be done at their fingertips instead of having to go out of their way to the store, especially as we approach the holiday season," she said.

Anticipating the increase in customers choosing to shop from home, several retailers have updated shipping standards for the season, including Target's free two-day shipping on any orders regardless of price. Target is among many retailers picking up advance shipping services, a deal made famous when Amazon began offering it for Prime members.

"This is really an evolution," retail analyst Brittain Ladd said. "Every year there's a new technology; every year there's an improvement in supply chain."

And that improvement for delivery is expected to continue, Ladd said, as retailers experiment with using third-party companies like Deliv, Shipt and Instacart in addition to the United Parcel Service and FedEx to ship Christmas gifts. And the retailers are also looking into machine learning and augmented reality to better determine inventory levels months in advance of the shopping season.

But those who do decide to brave the crowds at stores this holiday season can also expect a quicker trip, with new mobile checkout technology debuting in both Walmart and Target.

The mobile payment options are expected to keep customers from waiting in long checkout lines, with Walmart's Check Out With Me and Target's Skip-the-Line giving shoppers a chance to check out with store employees strategically placed in the busiest parts of stores throughout the holiday season.

Especially during the holidays, customers can avoid the chaos of a busy store by taking advantage of new pickup technologies debuting in Walmarts, such as the 16-foot-tall pickup tower and curbside pickup, western Ohio e-commerce manager Tim Mahan said. Other retailers like Aldi, Kroger, Meijer and Whole Foods have also debuted grocery pickup and delivery options.

"One of the things that we've seen over the course of the past few years is that customers are really wanting to get in and get out pretty quickly," Mahan said.

But retailers still have a long way to go to catch up with Amazon, whose cashierless checkout at Amazon Go stores is still more advanced than the mobile checkout other retailers are debuting for the holidays, Ladd said. And in many cases, Amazon's voice technology gives consumers the ability to purchase their items by simply asking an Alexa-enabled device, and Amazon will take care of the rest.

"The retail industry is changing a lot, and in order to keep up we do have to make advancements in technology, especially when it comes to the online shopping experience for our guests," Chalmers said. "That's important just to stay competitive in the market that we're in right now."

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