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June 5, 2020updated 10 Jun 2020 9:52am

How retail technology can help shops reopen after pandemic closures

By Daniel Bailey

The retail sector, like many industries, has been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses have to adapt to new guidelines and ways of shopping. A clear example is clothing retailers, who are now heavily relying on e-commerce sales, working harder to replicate the ‘in-store’ experience online.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have made it possible to arrange delivery of essentials through third parties like Deliveroo – bringing our weekly shop to our door within the hour – to alleviate the burden on supermarket delivery services which remain over-subscribed.

However, as governments across Europe start to share plans of how lockdown measures will be eased, we must start to think about how we return to ‘normal’ and whether or not our increasing reliance on technology for shopping will continue to rise.

Businesses are planning for how they build a balance between safe social distancing, whilst still operating efficiently and profitably. For retailers, technology is going to be a vital tool in helping to identify patterns and facilitate new processes that maximise the efficiency of online and in-store systems.

Managing customer traffic

One emerging application of retail technology is the introduction of ‘scan-and-go’. Using our smartphones as barcode and QR code readers, to scan products as we add them to our trolley, may not seem like a revolutionary technology, but it’s one that’s likely to become widely adopted.

QR codes will be a vital way for consumers to find out additional information about a product they are interested in, without having to interact face-to-face with a retail assistant.

Furthermore, scan-and-go apps make handling payment on our own devices for cashless checkout possible, reducing the risks associated with long check-out queues. What’s more, by automating the process, retailers will be able to send push notifications to our devices as we shop to highlight current promotions and offers, whilst also anticipating other products the consumer might be interested in – taking a leaf from the online shopping experience book.

According to market research firm Mintel, online shopping has grown by 33% since the crisis began. Clearly, physical retailers need to be prepared for consumer’s new buying habits, and the rise of ROPO (Research Online, Purchase Offline). With delivery services at capacity, while social distancing measures are still in place, we can expect to see businesses start to consider reservation systems that allow customers to pre-plan an in-store visit and book a time to physically shop, in order to manage traffic flow throughout the store in a more systematic fashion.

Retail technology: AR and VR

Humans are creatures of habit, and whilst we look to minimise human interaction, there will still be an ongoing desire for the ‘browsing’ experience. This means that stores need to identify new ways to deliver this service, balancing browsing time with reducing their foot traffic.

Retailers will likely look to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies to replicate this in-store experience at home. For example, brands could encourage ‘browsing’ online or through a virtual world that offers a lifelike, 360-degree view of the products, that allows the customer to see and examine their intended purchases as though they were looking at the real thing. In fact, some companies are already offering the chance to use AR through mobile phone cameras, to place virtual copies of furniture in our homes. This allows us to check that it fits and gives us the closest possible experience to seeing the item in reality.

Not only this, but to further minimise human interaction, AR is also being used to digitally mould clothes onto models working remotely. This means retailers can still launch new products online with realistic images of the items being worn, all whilst protecting employees and enabling them to work remotely.

Using retail technology to increase connectivity

Finally, businesses that didn’t already have customer relationship management (CRM) systems connected in their stores now need to be thinking about how they can connect e-commerce, customer service and in-store systems in order to drive efficiency.

For example, buying a pair of new glasses during the pandemic is likely to be lengthy. Each pair of frames touched and tried on will require proper cleaning for increased hygiene, extending the usual process of trying on various frames and the responsibility of the store to manage the experience.

Instead, an optician could implement connected virtual tools that ease the process. Starting at the customer’s end, they can use AR functionality to ‘try on’ glasses as they would in-store and narrow down their choices to two or three pairs. They can use conversational messaging tools to get real-time feedback on their enquiries, informing their decision, direct from the store. Next, the customer can make an appointment for a fitting. On arrival, the retail assistant in-store has already prepared for their appointment, with the frame selection ready and clean, to ensure the in-store experience is as short and as safe as possible, reducing the time from arrival to final purchase.

By connecting the at-home experience to the store, sales assistants could also recommend an additional pair of glasses, based on the customer’s browsing, providing opportunities for upsell and personalised recommendations that they may fear losing out on. Details of the transaction, including customers enquiries, preferences, and past purchases can all be managed by a connected CRM platform to deliver a more bespoke experience for the customer, and generate valuable analytics for the retailer to help them understand their customers’ new shopping habits.

If one thing is certain, it’s that there is going to be a new retail experience, re-imagined in the wake of Covid-19. Retailers face a host of challenges, and it’ll be important to deploy the right retail technology solutions to remain agile in their management of post-Covid-19 life, generating revenue whilst maintaining hygienic conditions.

Daniel Bailey is VP enterprise EMEA at Zendesk, a customer service software company headquartered in San Francisco, California, USA. 

Read more: Could the coronavirus pandemic see drone deliveries take off?

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