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The future of retail - 5 tech trends that will stay post-pandemic

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock)

The Covid-19 pandemic caused significant disruption for the retail industry. Remote working drove commuters out of city centers, anxious older demographics stayed at home and embraced digital channels for the first time, and items traditionally purchased solely in-store were delivered contactless to doorsteps worldwide. Retailers were forced to adapt at pace to changing buying behaviors and trading restrictions in order to survive and thrive.  

Now, in the UK at least, the high street is slowly starting to re-open. On April 12, retailers eagerly welcomed shoppers back in store. And, as we emerge from the crisis, optimism is high. In fact, UK consumer confidence index has bounced to its highest level since before the start of the pandemic.  

Despite the optimism, it's likely that the retail sector will never be the same again. Buying habits have changed, as have customer expectations. But retailers could be well placed to adapt to these evolving demands, due to the accelerated period of digital transformation we’ve witnessed in the past 12 months. The post-pandemic era may yet see a ‘better normal’ for retail. 

As the end of the tunnel is firmly set in our sights, here are five trends that will represent the long-term shifts in the retail industry.

1. The era of online is here to stay  

The most significant retail trend during the Covid crisis was the enormous shift towards online shopping. In fact, according to Accenture, not only are people buying differently, but they are also living differently, and in many ways, thinking differently. 

Retailers responded to this surge in demand and the closure of brick-and-mortar stores by looking towards initiatives such as BOPIS (Buy Online Pickup in Store), ROPIS (Reserve Online Pickup in Store), curbside pickup and ship-from-store home delivery models. 

A huge challenge for retailers was scaling up order fulfillment capabilities and inventory management quickly, cost-effectively and smoothly. This is because many retailers repurposed physical stores as fulfillment centers to add greater efficiency to the supply chain and get orders to customers more quickly. 

However, new in-store picking processes come at a cost, putting pressure on margins. To capitalize on growth in these new channels without disruption, existing technology can be utilized, like smartphone scanning, to simplify and streamline routing and processes, maximizing cost efficiencies.

2. Single device strategies become the norm 

The changes in customer buying behaviors throughout the pandemic led to shifting roles for retail employees, as store associates became pickers and warehouse operatives to support new sales channels. Greater flexibility and the agility to shift employees’ focus with changing situations has become critical. 

As part of this new workforce model, staff needs seamless access to different store workflows through a single device, so they can search and find products, retrieve real-time inventory information or identify and sort orders in seconds. After all, being able to use one device for all tasks will be essential in a fast-paced retail environment.  

A large European grocer reported pre-pandemic how a change in strategy from shared hardware scanners to COPE (company-owned, personally enabled) smart devices for everyone halved employee step counts by delivering the right tools and information instantly. No need to traipse to the backroom, no need to switch devices or carry multiple ones. 

Switching between shared devices is slow, inefficient and costly. Not only this, but hygiene is also a major factor for employees and customers alike and, as long as Covid remains with us, sharing devices is a no-go. Providing staff with all the tools they need to complete any task boosts efficiency, staff satisfaction and empowers them to add value across the entire retail operation – whether selling, clienteling or assisting with fulfillment.

3. Clean and contactless is the focus

The Covid-19 pandemic changed traditional retail overnight, with social distancing and hygiene as a key priority. A new preference for technology and self-service was key to keeping customers coming back.  

The high street remains hopeful that shoppers will return once restrictions begin to lift after a challenging year. However, to restore consumer confidence, retailers must have a focus on making a clean, safe and contactless environment for the foreseeable future, our research suggests. As restrictions in the UK lift, consumers will be returning to activities outside the home, leaving retailers with the opportunity to entice them back to bricks-and-mortar stores. 

To help convince them it’s safe to visit, shoppers’ concerns must be addressed, including the fear of touching Covid-contaminated surfaces, and a desire to minimize the amount of time spent in-store. 

Contactless commerce and cashless transactions via self-service checkouts, web apps, QR codes and pay-and-go technology increased in popularity during the crisis to protect both staff and customers, and this trend is likely to continue.

4. Peaks in demand are likely  

The unprecedented surge in demand for online shopping was a huge challenge for retailers.  

Businesses needed to retool and restaff quickly, and many found that utilizing BYOD or COPE smartphones gave them the speed and flexibility they needed to scale operations to fulfill their increased online orders. Deploying scanning-enabled smartphones is an accessible, rapid solution for equipping staff with the tools they need to pick and ship orders. 

The pandemic has taught retailers to plan for the unexpected. The crisis is not yet over, and further peaks in demand are likely. By utilizing tools and technology, retailers can keep agile so they are able to adapt quickly to future changes. 

5. Bringing the digital experience in-store 

The digital shopping experience has changed customer preferences and expectations. Along with easy access and convenience, consumers making online purchases are supported by a wealth of product information, reviews and recommendations. 

To provide a truly omnichannel experience moving forward, retailers can bring the online experience to the high street by providing this same information for in-store visitors. More than half of retailers believe that more customers prefer app-based smartphone solutions for self-scanning shopping, rather than legacy dedicated handheld scanners. A similar proportion (59.5%) cite increased demand from customers wanting to use the technology to access more product information to help them make more conscious purchase choices. 

Bringing the digital experience in-store helps improve customer engagement and increases upsell opportunities – all without requiring any staff interaction. Self-scanning mobile apps allow customers to scan as they shop and pay without queuing or interacting with staff. Their in-store experience is quick, smooth and minimizes touch points, boosting consumer confidence.

Christian Floerkemeier, CTO and co-founder, Scandit