Design + Connections: Innovating the Retail Experience with Digital

Design + Connections at the ISA Expo: Q & A with Ashley Arhart, Office Depot


How are retailers using digital technology to innovate the shopping experience and create brand loyalty? As Senior Director of Customer Experience, Visual Merchandising & Interactive for Office Depot, Ashley Arhart is leading the digital tech + media space, guiding her company toward engaging interactive applications that build customer satisfaction and brand relevancy. She’ll be a speaker at SEGD and ISA’s Design + Connections workshop April 24 in Orlando!

First of all, what's your background? Are you a designer?

I grew up in Texas and have a degree in Creative Advertising from The University of Texas in Austin. I got my first experience with EGD as an intern at the Capitol Metro Transit Authority in Austin. After graduating, I moved to Seattle and worked at a small design firm doing print and EGD, then joined The Retail Group, an architectural firm focused exclusively on retail design. I eventually become Creative Director and Partner. In 2002 I made the leap to Eddie Bauer, where I became Director of Retail Creative and Visual Merchandising. After three years at Eddie Bauer, I joined my husband, an industrial and architectural designer, in our own business, Arhart Creative. Hornall Anderson was one of our clients, and I eventually joined their firm and started an EGD studio there. This is where I learned about integration of digital technology in the physical space.

Tell us more about your path to Office Depot?

After a great six years at Hornall Anderson, my family and I were ready for a new adventure…and better weather. I was most interested in honing my leadership skills, and a corporate environment seemed best to do that. The Office Depot opportunity spoke to me on several levels: a brand and experience in need of reinvigoration. A challenging physical environment with difficult product stories to tell. An opportunity to think of traditional and digital technology-based communication tactics in concert. A newly created innovation team within a major retailer…and sunny south Florida weather!

Tell us about Office Depot’s philosophy on technology and how you are using it to enhance the in-store experience?

We believe in an omni-channel approach—that a customer should be able to access rich, meaningful experiences with our brand and products in whatever way they’d like, without barriers. Increasingly, customers are choosing to buy online, and do a lot of research online, even if they plan to purchase in a store. Digital technology is a tool they use all along their path to purchase. It’s the rule, not the exception any longer, and we can’t fail to meet and exceed that expectation.

Is this part of a strategy to engage shoppers in the physical store versus “losing" them to online retailers?

Absolutely. We also know that the digitally engaged shopper is our MOST engaged shopper, so it’s very clear that a digital strategy is synonymous with a wise strategy in many ways. Our digitally engaged customers purchase significantly more than our non-digitally engaged customers across a given year—and the great majority of those purchases are still happening in the physical environment. But we all know e-commerce is growing at an amazing pace. Physical environments need to offer more—more humanity, more satisfaction, more immersion, more relevancy, more excitement—in addition to all the tools and immediacy that e-commerce affords. It’s an exciting time to be in retail, for sure.

What are some of the interactive experiences you’re creating in-store?

We’re exploring all kinds of things. First and foremost, we want to improve the shoppability of our current environment and help people select (or in an environment like ours, “de-select”) from the myriad options. Next, we hope to energize their shopping experience, likely with touch-interactive or digitally-enhanced engagements that help reveal a story that couldn’t be explored as effectively in any other way.

What are Office Depot’s goals for these experiences?

At the end of the day, it’s all about increasing customer satisfaction and building brand relevancy. If we do that, we’ll be a thriving enterprise for a long time to come.

I understand your also use digital signage. What does that encompass, and what role does it serve?

We know digital signage is a powerful medium. We also know that ambient visual noise is a problem in our stores. We try to be very careful about how and when we create digital signage and dynamic presentations. Is the content appropriate and well-timed to the customer journey? Is it on-brand and on-point? Is it actually assisting the customer or associate? If it’s become expensive background noise or an assault on the senses, we’ll avoid it. We’d rather position a touch-interactive engagement at a point in their journey that will truly help them solve a problem or deliver a memorable story. The shelf edge is frequently our “moment of truth.”

What about mobile experiences, and how are they integrated with the other digital experiences?

We’re really excited about the work we’re doing with our friends on the mobile commerce and app development team. The Office Depot app knows what store you’re in and can act as a sort of assistant while there. We’re exploring proximity and triggering techniques (RFID, AR, iBeacon, etc.) that will allow the space to instantiate experiences on a smartphone (and vice versa).

Aurasma, a leading augmented reality platform, has been incorporated into our app, allowing customers to have a virtual as well as physical experience of almost anything we choose to explore. We can make any sign or any product package into a trigger. It’s amazing what can be done. For us, mobile is one of our favorite colors in our box of communication crayons.

You also use motion-tracking software to track how shoppers experience the store, right? What have these data illuminated for you?

The goal is to understand the specifics of the customer journey—while maintaining and respecting the privacy of our customers—so that we can truly understand what works and what doesn’t. There are 3D cameras that can photographically capture actual paths and pause points, as well as GPS-style mobile tools that leverage smart phones. Eye tracking and facial recognition paired with a digital sign can help you understand if you’re really communicating with the correct gender or age group in the way you’d hoped. It’s all very exciting. We’ve long had intuition about what works and why, but being able to analyze a physical decision-making path or moment, just like digital user interface designers can analyze their designs, is a powerful, quantifiable addition to our traditional qualitative approaches like shop-a-longs, ethnographic research, and exit intercepts.

And what about augmented reality? How is Office Depot using it?

As far as augmented reality goes, we've done a handful of things but are mainly in a very exploratory mode. Last year, we sold an AR--enabled product: a line of school supplies that featured photos of the boys from the band One Direction. We white-labeled the Aurasma augmented reality technology within our Office Depot app under a function called "Bring it to Life"...and when you captured a particular boy's image in the viewfinder, it launched a video of him sharing a story. The same sort of thing would happen when you captured certain in-store signage elements. The whole thing became incredibly viral and it was a big hit for us, but it really only used AR as a triggering mechanism. The promise of the technology is much greater.

We've also done some product-level work with HP—creating an AR experience that magically conjured an AV experience featuring a DJ named Clams Casino when viewing specific product signage.  We've got much bigger plans for this back-to-school period, but I can't share those just yet. Suffice it to say, we're very excited about the possibilities of the technology and are looking to leveraging it to enhance the in-store experience in a variety of ways.

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