Black Friday in the Age of COVID-19: How Smart Retail Technology Can Help Brick-and-Mortar Survive
The arrival of the so-called “retail apocalypse” in the wake of the phenomenal growth of e-commerce may be approaching quicker than anticipated as countless brick-and-mortar stores shutter due to the global pandemic. And with many consumers wary of returning to physical storefronts anytime soon — preferring to make their purchases in the safety of their homes — more and more brick-and-mortar retailers worry that their apocalyptic moment has already arrived.
However, even if the declaration of the end of in-store shopping has been greatly exaggerated, the challenges remain formidable. For physical stores to survive the upcoming holiday season and beyond, they'll need to embrace solutions that cater to customers’ expectations of a retail experience that’s just as convenient and seamless as online shopping, while also adhering to new norms of social distancing.
One solution to this predicament lies in automated technology, including in-store cameras and robots designed to enable efficient, convenient shopping experiences. While retail automation is hardly new, it has been relatively slow to catch on, with only 40 percent of retailers indicating in a recent survey that it’s a strategic priority. This despite findings that 46 percent of consumers would be willing to switch their purchase from an e-commerce site to a brick-and-mortar retailer with automation technology, and 66 percent believing such technology would solve the problem of long checkout lines — shoppers’ top brick-and-mortar pain point.
Though consumers do see significant promise in retail automation, for automated solutions to fulfill their potential they must operate with maximal efficiency and minimal latency. That will require edge processing capabilities, so that crucial data is processed on-premise and without delay. Otherwise, cashier-less stores will not be able to keep up with mounting consumer demands and increasing pressures to operate with the speed and accuracy of e-commerce.
Here’s how smarter retail solutions can drive sales in brick-and-mortar stores during this holiday season and beyond.
Better Cameras, Better Retail Experiences
Smart stores make it possible to minimize human contact, but for these stores to work as intended, they must be equipped with smarter, more powerful cameras that can process data locally, in real time, and securely. These stores will require a multitude of cameras able to detect the smallest of objects from far distances. Such smart cameras can enable stores to go cashier-less and checkout-free, as well as continuously monitor product inventory and foot traffic. However, those cameras must be able to process information swiftly and without interruption. If the cameras lag or cannot effectively process the data, customers will face even longer wait times, shelves will not be properly stocked, and other technical issues will plague the in-store experience.
Ceiling-mounted cameras and sensors are at the core of Amazon Go’s checkout-free shopping experience, for instance. Trigo utilizes in-store cameras and computer vision algorithms to identify which items shoppers pick up as they move about a store and automatically tabulates the cost of their purchases. Eliminating the need for checkout, Trigo’s solution enables customers to pay via mobile app.
For retailers of all sizes, the good news is that many of these solutions can be retrofitted to existing stores at a modest cost.
Not Just Any Robots
Robots will also play a prominent role in the future of smart retail, and indeed, many top retailers have already rolled out their own in-store robots. Lowe’s has introduced the LoweBot, which both aids in customer service and conducts real-time inventory monitoring. Portuguese retailer Auchan also benefits from the in-depth insights of inventory-monitoring robots, which scan stores up to three times a day to deliver an up-to-date picture of inventory on each shelf — a regular stream of data for guiding smarter business decisions. Walmart’s Auto-C autonomous floor cleaners, meanwhile, help address the growing need for thorough and efficient cleaning and disinfecting of physical stores. All of these promise smoother operations, well-stocked shelves, and a fresher, healthier customer experience.
While in-store robots are relatively new to the retail scene, look for them to become increasingly ubiquitous over the coming years. ABI Research forecasts that there will be more than 150,000 robots in brick-and-mortar retail stores by 2025.
A New Brick-and-Mortar Landscape
COVID-19 has certainly reshaped the retail terrain, heightening the need for solutions that will provide safer, cleaner, more seamless and more enticing in-store shopping journeys if brick-and-mortar is to compete.
As an unpredictable holiday season rings in, retailers will be better equipped to meet the challenges of the moment by deploying advanced technologies that will enable them to reopen in a way that builds customer trust and loyalty.
To be sure, not every retailer will be ready to deploy an in-store robot or cashier-less checkout in time for Black Friday. However, in the ever-changing reality, brick-and-mortar retailers no longer have the luxury of putting off smart retail strategies. Now is the time to adapt operations to suit the world’s new normal.
Liran Bar serves as vice president of business development at Hailo, a global leader in AI chip development.
Liran Bar serves as Vice President of Business Development at Hailo, a global leader in AI chip development. Liran has two decades of experience in the semiconductor industry, with senior positions at several multinational companies, including CEVA (a licensor of vision DSP and AI cores), Altair Semiconductor, (provider of single-mode LTE solutions), and DigitalOptics Corporation (DOC), (worldwide leader in Micro-Optics). Liran’s extensive contribution to Israeli startup TransChip helped paved the path for its acquisition by Samsung in 2007. His deep understanding of business planning, startup growth, and product marketing prepared him for his leading role in the launch of Hailo’s deep learning processor, the Hailo-8™, which is now being sampled by major OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers across the globe. Liran holds a B.Sc in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Ben Gurion University of the Negev.