Yesterday I moderated a panel on IoT interoperability at the IoT influencers summit called "Solving Interoperability". Since we only had 25 minutes for our panel we didn't get around to solving IoT interoperability - that would have taken at least an hour - but the panelists and I did discuss a number of interesting topics, including the current level of understanding of consumers around the topic of the smart home.
While that wasn't the main focus of the panel, understanding where current consumers are today with regards to how they perceive smart home products is probably the single most important and defining issue the industry has. Lew Brown, CEO of MiOS, said it best - the vast majority of consumers don't go to buy a "smart home". Instead they're trying to solve for needs like monitoring a dog while away from home, being able to water their grass more efficiently through intelligent connected irrigation systems, and so on.
In other words, we are in the "point solution" phase of the market - meaning people are buying singular devices they can understand, that solve for a singular problem. I've written about this before, and will likely continue to write about it.
To get to the next stage of the market, we need interesting new approaches to educate the consumer about the value of the smart home. One way is through large-scale initiatives from big tech like Apple with HomeKit and the variety of things Google is doing. Another is potentially disruptive new interfaces like Amazon has with its Echo/Alexa efforts.
Unfortunately, while creating new and interesting technologies like this that may, ultimately, make things easier and benefit from the brute-force marketing only these Goliaths can bring to bear, they're still not enough. Much of the work has to be done on the ground, at retail, where consumers buy products. To that end, I can't say I'm deeply impressed with the efforts so far by retailers, where the simple creation of smart home aisles and end caps show lots of products, but largely do so in a vacuum. In other words, they don't give the consumer the necessary context needed to understand how these devices, jointly, can create a magical experience.
That's why I'm intrigued by the new efforts being undertaken by both Sears and Target in their concept homes. While they are each their own unique effort - this article does a good job explaining the different experiences - both retailers are delving deeper into experiential retail that puts the devices, both singularly and as a whole, into the context of a home where people can see them in action and better understand how they can impact their lives.
It's a small start, but at least it's a start. Target has made it clear this is an experiment, and that they hope to take lessons learned and apply them more broadly to its retail stores over time. Sears is probably thinking along the same lines. As I said over at Forbes, the efforts remind a little of how Pirch is trying to reinvent home appliance retail, where they make an entire store a series of experiences that lets people actually try out the different devices before they buy them.
In a way, it's part of the bigger evolution of retail from the old Sears Roebuck days where it used to be enough to shelve products to a more modern store concept that takes elements of the Apple Store approach, where knowledgable experts help out and answer questions in a clean, uncluttered environment. But these approaches build upon the Apple concept by giving consumers the ability to envision these products in their lives, beyond what they can get from reading a box or asking a question.
Will it work? I don't know, mostly because I don't know how committed these retailers are to exporting the lessons learned to their larger retail footprints. But at the very least these efforts show that some retailers realize that selling the smart home takes a new kind of approach beyond stacking boxes.
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