Responding to customers’ concerns
Just because a government says shops can open their doors, doesn’t mean shoppers won’t still be cautious. Increased stocks of hand sanitiser will help, but more practical measures like broader options for cash-free payment, including integration with online wallets and smartphone payment is an excellent starting point.
Further, integrating an online presence with a physical store to provide click and collect or same-day home delivery will speak to those who choose not to enter a retail environment at all or who, having done so, prefer stock from the warehouse, rather than a product touched by, potentially, dozens of customers as it sits on the shelf.
Omnichannel brands, with both online and physical outlets, should be looking to marry the two, so that intelligence gathered through virtual shopping over the last 12 months can be used in online marketing to drive physical footfall. Most customers are already familiar with QR (Quick Response) codes and use them to claim discounts and download supplementary information from ads. However, using them in reverse, to generate coupons on the customer’s phone that can be scanned in store, will be both familiar and engaging, while replicating a process that previously relied on paper vouchers in a covid-safe digital form.
Shortening the shopping experience
Walmart, has been using RFID (radio-frequency identification) to manage its supply chain. The US grocery giant has been requiring its 100 biggest suppliers to attach RFID tags to its incoming shipments, which speeds up the process of logging arrivals at its depots. The tags themselves, which describe the product or palette to which they are attached, can be read wirelessly, like a tap-to-pay debit card.
Walmart’s aim was to ensure the chain’s stock records were accurate, to save customers wasted journeys to their closest store, but the wider effect has been to promote wider use of the technology, with other outlets of similar size, including Tesco, Best Buy and Home Depot, following its lead.
But RFID isn’t the only device being used behind the scenes, and other headline brands have successfully rolled out customer-facing implementations that should be a model for their rivals.
Sports outlet Decathlon has attached RFID tags to 85% of the 600 million products it sells every year, both to log their arrival at store and to smooth customers’ experience at the opposite end of the process. Rather than requiring every item to be scanned in the traditional manner, customers can instead drop them into a receptacle at the self-service checkout, which logs the contents of their basket in one go. Nespresso has been doing similar in its stores since 2014, and has more recently opened an RFID-powered self-service boutique at London Bridge Station.
RFID is just one of several options open to retailers and, being inexpensive and discrete, it is easy to see why it is gaining traction.
However, one of the biggest names in online retail – Amazon – is using a wide range of complementary technologies, including computer vision, deep learning and sensor fusion (combining input from multiple sensors) to deliver what it calls ‘Just Walk Out Shopping’.
Its Amazon Go grocery stores, of which there are now 27 in major US cities, including Chicago and New York, have no tills. That is because the products they stock don’t need to be logged at a single point, as they are tracked while you navigate the store and charged to your Amazon account. It is still early days, even in the US, but Amazon is already rolling out the technology in Europe, having opened its first two outlets, under the Amazon Fresh brand, in London.
Whether through RFID alone, or multiple sensor fusion, these brands are removing two of the most tedious steps in real-world shopping: queueing and scanning. As customers get used to this less painful way of shopping, they are going to start choosing between rival stores based on the speed at which they can navigate the checkout.
After a challenging 12 months, it is likely that the first few weeks after reopening will see an enthusiastic return, at least from some shoppers. However, to sustain that interest, in-person retail needs to prove that its relevance extends beyond simply being a reason to get out of the house. It also needs to demonstrate that it has still got an edge, by combining its USP – real products experienced in person – with the convenience that we have grown used to.