Everyone agrees the Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the retail industry. In the face of government-imposed lockdowns, non-essential stores had to close their doors and place workers on furlough. With the high street now re-open for business, retailers are having to adapt at speed to a plethora of new shopping realities. That includes flexing their estates to serve the socially distanced consumer in-store.
One thing is for sure. The recent global epidemic has changed the rules of the retail game – perhaps forever. Social distancing, likely to be part and parcel of everyone’s lives for the foreseeable future, inhibits many of the in-person interactions that traditionally characterized the in-store experience. But that is not the only challenge that retailers face.
Rebuilding customer trust and confidence now depends on stores doing everything in their power to keep everyone safe, including employees. Initiating practical measures, such as one-way systems, safety screens and floor markings to indicate safe distancing when people are queuing at payment or collection points is just the start.
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Dealing with practicalities…
The brick-and-mortar in-store experience will need to evolve fast if retailers are to cater for fast-evolving consumer expectations about how they want to shop. Following months of being restricted to shopping primarily online, they have become accustomed to the immediacy and convenience of digital channels. As a consequence, consumers are unlikely to tolerate encountering long queues outside or inside stores – or disconnected experiences that cause delays and frustration.
Despite having been forced to embrace online shopping in recent months, there appears to be plenty of pent-up demand among consumers for bricks-and-mortar shopping and the product discovery experiences that are difficult or impossible to recreate online. However, those consumers that show up to shop will expect to encounter appropriate hygiene precautions when visiting stores.
Complying with government imposed restrictions and guidance that is designed to keep people safer means that retailers are becoming more dependent than ever on in-store technologies that make it easy to deliver more seamless and engaging shopping experiences.
For example, with fear of infection now front of mind for customers, offering touch-free shopping options across the shop floor is becoming a must-have for satisfying the needs of those consumers that want to avoid the queues, complete transactions on their mobile device, and have their purchases shipped directly to home. For others, self-checkout options, smart tags, and ‘scan-to-learn more’ shelf labels that make it easy to get answers to questions without touching physical products will be a top priority.
Lowering risk to shoppers means that virtual reality in-store technologies that enable customers to envision how products will look on them, and enjoy that all important experiential product discovery moment, are becoming essential for securing customer confidence – and creating the richer experiences that add up to competitive advantage.
Once considered a nice-to-have, retailers are now preparing to go all-in on technologies like smart mirrors that will allow customers to virtually ‘try on’ clothes, footwear, and cosmetics. Similarly, options like digital ‘look books’ and virtual assistants that give customers new ways to choose products or get recommendations are rapidly rising up the ‘must-have’ investment list of retailer priorities.
To enable all these digital capabilities, however, retailers will need an edge computing infrastructure that makes it easy to remotely deploy the new in-store technologies and applications that will prove transformative for the in-store shopping experience.
Bringing digital to life
The recent public health crisis has served to accelerate consumer demand for truly seamless omnichannel in-store experiences. While many retailers were already making moves in this direction, and redesigning customer journeys to accommodate this trend, consumers in just about every demographic segment now expect to shop using any device, in any store location. But blending bricks-and-mortar stores with other digital channels is just one aspect of how retailers will need to engage with shoppers in new and meaningful ways.
To deal with the disruption created by Covid-19, retailers will need to elevate how they leverage data for business. That means stealing a leaf from online retailers to capture the shopper data insights that will enable them to hyper-personalize customer engagement.
For example, using connected edge devices, retailers can track a customer’s journey through a store and evaluate what products caught their attention. Alongside delivering personalized offers and adverts as customers browse shelves, retailers can also analyze all this data to enhance the efficiency of their store layouts and product displays for the specific customer population profile they serve.
Utilizing connected edge devices, retailers will also be able to monitor in real-time the number of people entering and exiting the store, instituting measures to ensure that footfall stays within safe limits. Plus, they’ll be able to personalize in-store engagement the moment a shopper walks into a store, as WiFi systems recognize a returning customer.
Giving retailers the ability to process, analyze and take actions, based on data where it is actually generated on the shop floor, edge computing generates the purchasing trend data that retailers need to execute highly personalized marketing. This can stimulate the purchase of products already discovered in-store or alert customers to trends and upcoming products they’re interested in.
But that’s not the only benefit that comes with initiating edge computing. Retailers can also use the data that is generated by connected IoT sensors to become more operationally nimble and efficient: whether that is automating the monitoring of fridge and freezer temperatures to optimize product storage, or initiating new digitalized supply chain processes that improve the accuracy of in-store inventory tracking and enabling automated product re-ordering.
Competing to win and keep customers
Taking the in-store shopping experience into a new era will be vital, as society continues to recover from the immediate impact of coronavirus. The rise of the socially distanced shopper has ignited greater customer demand for omnichannel fulfilment options like click-and-collect and zero-touch transaction options in-store that are frictionless – and keep shoppers safe.
In many ways, Covid-19 has helped accelerate many of the digital transformation drivers that were already leading high street retailers to re-invent the in-store shopping experience in a bid to compete with pure-play internet retailers. Getting customers back through the door represents a golden opportunity for retailers to re-imagine the in-store shopping experience with innovative technologies and services that truly resonate with socially distancing shoppers.
This is where a game-changing technology like edge computing can help high street retailers close the gap: delivering the scalable, cost-effective, and easy-to-manage platforms they need to securely spin up new connected retail applications and appliances, and capture customer intelligence from the shop floor.
Johan Pellicaan, Vice President & Managing Director, Scale Computing EMEA