From Shopping Cart to Storeroom: Blending the Physical and Digital in Post-COVID Retail
The coronavirus has brought forward two significant trends in retail. One is to have a more integrated approach to omnichannel retail, and the other is to re-invigorate brick-and-mortar stores.
The dramatic changes in how people have shopped over the past 18 months mean that neither trend will end any time soon. Consumers have become familiar with online retail for everything from the weekly grocery run to buying a new sofa.
Early on in the pandemic, we observed how well consumers embraced the expanded world of self-scanning, click-and-collect, curbside pickup, and home delivery. In the summer of 2020, our proprietary customer data showed increases of up to 500 percent in transactions through these contactless solutions. According to the latest U.S. data from Deloitte’s State of the Consumer tracker, online shopping in categories like electronics, clothing and footwear, home furnishings, and takeout from restaurants remains particularly strong. For example, at the end of July 2021, 41 percent of consumers intended to shop online for electronics, including 27 percent choosing home delivery and 14 percent planning to pick up in-store.
The rise in e-commerce has made this the norm, but a new, hybrid world of buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS), and ship-from-store services puts pressure on retailers to deliver timely and cost-efficient order fulfilment for products that have been ordered online. The proven convenience that these solutions provide means that they're certainly here to stay.
Investing in Digital
As they emerge from the crisis, retailers want to get more from their investments by blending their physical store environments with their digital operations. The No. 1 aim is to bring all the benefits of online shopping into the physical store — quickly, at scale, and ideally without the need for a costly and time-intensive store refit. Selecting the right technology to invest in means prioritizing the need for contactless, efficient and flexible solutions that enhance the overall in-store experience.
To provide a truly omnichannel and superior store experience, retailers need to blend online and offline. Inventory availability and accuracy is the key to this; integrating e-commerce and physical store systems with mobile technology brings the online experience to the store by providing this same information for in-store visitors.
First and foremost, retailers need to find solutions that meet the needs of both their customers and employees, whether for the e-commerce world or in-store. Retailers have understood that giving consumers the ability to shop wherever, whenever, and however they want is ultimately dependent on delivering digital solutions that fit the modern shopper. The pandemic has undoubtedly sped up digital transformation across the industry and introduced a wave of new solutions to keep customers feeling safe and engaged.
However, just as consumers need a mix of convenience plus the experience of enjoyment and instant gratification that comes from shopping in-store, retail employees need simple, fast and performance-enhancing digital tools.
Empowering Consumers — and Employees
To improve store operational efficiencies, retailers need to put people front-of-mind, blending the physical and digital by investing in the right technologies to create more human and engaging experiences. For example, creating a stand-out customer experience involves empowering employees to work more efficiently, using augmented reality (AR) and computer vision effectively to digitize in-store processes.
Many retailers have already turned to smartphones and computer vision apps to offer consumers the convenience and choice of self-scanning plus the ability to view real-time product information before buying. Now, they’re providing the same smartphones and apps to their employees — adding speed and simplicity to supply chains, operations and customer service — and deploying them as a one-device solution to address a wide range of store-based processes. Everything from order fulfilment to inventory management, to shelf management and point of sale can be built within the same employee app running on the same set of devices.
Consumers browsing in-store can use mobile apps with built-in computer vision technology to browse and scan products and see stock availability. At the same time, AR overlays show additional product information to consumers considering a purchase, boosting engagement and bringing a product to life with alternative colors, special offers and product reviews they’d otherwise be searching for online. The result is a seamless e-commerce experience in a physical store.
Employee apps can use the same technology to allow in-store scanning of items with AR display overlays that provide additional information. Simply by pointing a computer vision-enabled smartphone at a shelf, store associates can keep track of stock information to ensure accurate inventory and visibility to meet demand or scan multiple barcodes in a single sequence for faster inventory counts. They can see alerts when product prices need updating or when stock needs to be moved, or to quickly search and identify specific items that have been ordered online for pickup.
In addition, store assistants armed with AR become high-value sales consultants able to quickly pull up additional product information — providing bespoke advice to customers on their purchase and then help them seamlessly check out — all from a smartphone or tablet.
What’s Next for Retail?
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Throughout the last 18 months, retailers have worked hard to optimize in-store digital experiences with consumers responding positively to self-scanning apps.
On a more profound level, customers motivated to return to stores after a more e-commerce-dominated experience during the pandemic will be craving something that a digital-only, transactional experience cannot offer. Enabling in-store employees to provide higher quality and more human experiences provides more opportunities to create value for customers and ultimately secure higher value transactions. Computer vision-enabled smartphones can dramatically improve the shopping experience for consumers and employees, sharing offers on relevant products or even suggesting the best wine to go with a specific cuisine.
The pace of change will continue to accelerate. Retailers will need to modernize their stores to blend e-commerce convenience with the human interaction that only a physical store can offer. To stay ahead, retailers need to find new ways of creating an improved and more human overall experience, one that gives consumers access to better product availability, visibility and access to relevant product information. The next wave of innovation will see hyperpersonalization appear in-store where consumers are presented with unique offers based on their personal preferences. New technologies such as computer vision and AR can achieve this, giving brands a head start to build on and continue to innovate to remain competitive and address market needs as they continue to evolve rapidly.
With an eye to the future, many are looking to mobile computer vision as the single most important platform able to address all retail needs flexibly — taking advantage of the expanding capabilities of smart devices, incrementally delivering new standards of speed and functionality.
Ultimately, it all adds to empowering employees to provide the added-value human experience shoppers expect today.
Samuel Mueller is the CEO and co-founder of Scandit, a mobile barcode scanning solutions provider.
Related story: Why Mobile Self-Checkout Makes Sense for Retailers