Kicked to the Curb: The New Normal of Store Technology and Commerce

social distancing at Zara

Practicing social distancing in June 2020 at a Zara store in Kuala Lumpur (credit: Shutterstock)

Every January at NRF’s Big Show conference and expo, prognosticators get a glimpse at the cutting edge in retail technology that gives a portent of what the in-store and online shopping experience may be like months or years down the road.

The pandemic era of 2020, however, has acted like an accelerant sprayed on a smoldering flame. Now a hybrid of curbside pickup, delivery, barcode scanning (for food traceability throughout the supply chain) and contactless store interaction are shaping the “new normal” for consumer purchases of everything from food to electronics.

How else is store technology changing the game?

The “Store” is More than Brick and Mortar

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve seen that curbside pickup has moved from a secondary method to a primary one. It’s a natural transition when close physical contact has the potential to be deadly.

In the coming months, however, it will become increasingly clear that the curbside experience of today is just a starting point. It was something a small but growing number of customers took advantage of before, say, March of this year, but is now SOP for many retailers. As a result, many more consumers are realizing the benefits of:

  • Skipping navigation of large stores
  • Avoiding long checkout lines
  • Not wasting time searching for items that may/may not be in stock

As they grow to rely on that convenience, shoppers will expect the rest of the in-store experience to follow. That means extending “in-store” to “just outside the store.” Look for mobile technology to facilitate everything from digital signage to curbside returns and exchanges. Browsing will be done in real time on your phone as you wait in the pickup line. Most importantly, recreating the store experience at curbside is the ultimate insurance against future door closures due to resurgent pandemic waves.

The smartest retailers are already preparing against sudden disruptions and redefining the experience by upgrading store technology will be a critical part of it.

A key component will be re-establishing the bond of trust with their customers. Even when shoppers can afford to make discretionary purchases, low confidence in store safety will hamper spending at physical locations. Nathan Hendren, a Harvard economist, states that “the main concern here is really fighting the virus. Unless we remove the threat of getting sick or getting your family members sick, it’s hard to imagine that [in-store] spending will recover to the pre-COVID levels.”

That means stores must take tangible measures to exhibit they’re serious about mitigating this threat such as:

  • Managing social distancing – this is critical for employees and their customers. While floor decals indicating six-foot spaces are now everywhere, retailers will have to be considerably more sophisticated to make this viable in the long run. A good example of what this looks like for employees was recently exhibited by Ford Motor Company. They combined Samsung smartwatches with RFID software to create mobile solutions that vibrate and warn employees when they are too close to one another during shifts. Retailers may not be able to issue smartwatches to every shopper, but they can leverage reservation/queue systems a la OpenTable to strictly manage how many people are in the store.
  • Personal Safety – Store technology was already moving in the direction of being a more sensor-driven experience from smart shelves that monitor stock levels to cameras that help inform detailed heat maps on customer movement. The next horizon for that technology may be temperature checks for both employees and customers coming in. Previously, this simply meant infrared cameras, but accuracy for large, constantly changing crowds may not be enough. Some state-of-the-art store technology solutions combine AI with deep machine learning to not only identify at-risk customers but also alert sales staff. Additionally, ultraviolet light-based solutions let stores continually disinfect high-touch areas such as kiosks and payment pads.
  • Contactless In-Store Commerce – Contactless payments are getting their time in the spotlight. The total in-store experience, however, still contains a number of touchpoints that may require customers to be in more proximity with store associates than they are comfortable with. That’s why retailers are implementing things like frictionless checkout, where customers scan their own purchases and pay through the store’s app or in a designated checkout lane using a digital wallet.

Invest in Store Associates

Store associates are critical to making all of this work, but they need the technical support to make it happen. Smart retailers have been investing in devices, apps, services and infrastructure for training, disinfecting, customer management/social distancing, merchandising and more to make the new normal a success. The smartest ones are also taking into account the support needed for these new capabilities, empowering employees and rebuilding consumer confidence.

No matter how flexible and advanced your store capabilities, it’s all for naught if shoppers show up to find non-functional devices, disrupted systems and hard-to-use solutions that stymie them as well as associates. But stores that take a holistic approach by crafting an end-to-end mobile technology program will thrive during current and future disruptions.

Micah Robinson is an Enterprise Mobility Content Marketing Manager at Stratix

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