The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the already painful disruption of the retail industry and will accelerate the much-needed transformation of “brick and mortar” stores. With social distancing the new normal, at least into the foreseeable future, retailers must adopt alternative technologies and processes to address the current situation and be ready for possible future outbreaks.
Many retailers, including traditional mall “anchor” stores and national boutique chains, have struggled the past few years with the challenges of changing consumer behavior and online competition. Those issues can only be exacerbated by the abrupt shutdowns of retail commerce around the world that were enforced to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. With 2020 projected to be the worst year economically since the Great Depression, no retailer can afford to ignore the challenges.
Concerns over consumer and worker safety are upending traditional in-store shopping patterns—some of which may never return to “normal.” Yet even with growing concerns over a decrease in foot traffic, physical stores will continue to play a vital role, so retailers must adapt in order to reclaim and increase customer transactions. To succeed, they will need to find and more speedily adopt new solutions.
New stores of the ‘near future’
Retailers should focus on rethinking and redefining the key facets of a physical store, including :
- Shopper Touch Points – Combine the power of online and in-store retail to deliver a superior and convenient experience. Grab-and-go, curbside pickup, contact-less payments, and friction-less checkouts will become essential options.
- Store Safety – Store managers will be expected to maintain rigorous store sanitization cycles, ensure training and awareness of store employees, utilize new tools such as screening for elevated body temperatures, and enforce social distancing guidelines to manage in-store traffic density.
- New Formats – In order to manage containment zones and minimize large gatherings in large footprint stores, retailers will need to ensure consumer access to essential goods in newer, smaller store alternatives such as pop-up stores located in parking lots, neighborhoods, and other areas.
These changes will create a new store of the “near future” with in-store customer experiences driven by technology, just like online stores.
“The appetite for digitally enabled retail models will grow,” Accenture predicts. “The retailers that are most adaptable to change will be best positioned to ride out the immediate challenges and build stronger, more customer-centered businesses.”
One great example is a leading retailer in Europe with whom we’re working to streamline its IT operations and drive better operational efficiency. Today, the retailer is increasingly focused on improving the customer experience both online and offline. Our work is to enable a store of the near future that’s based on concepts of back-office transformation and the Just Walk Out capability that enables shoppers to simply enter a store, grab what they want, and “just go” without waiting in a checkout line.
Here are some examples of how to effectively enable the store of the near future:
- Real-Time Inventory Management
The combination of scanning robots and video analytics can ensure that store managers always have a real-time view of their product inventory. Customer service robots or static, AI-enabled edge cameras scan the aisles and capture accurate levels of inventory. By ensuring data capture across the logistic supply chain, stores can streamline ordering, return, customer experiences, and warehouse management.
- Refreshing Stores with AR/VR
Store managers can use Augmented Reality/ Virtual Reality tools to experiment with new store layouts and views to determine optimum ways to display their products. AR/VR can also help visualize new arrangements for special occasions such as celebrations or marketing campaigns, pop-up stores, etc. AR can also help provide product intelligence/data to store personnel to facilitate better customer service. Using AR from a customer experience perspective has not yet been exploited, but is very promising.
- In-Store Navigation
Geo-location can help customers navigate the store effortlessly through a mobile app. When customers enter the store, they’re prompted to scan something nearby. Then, based on insights from analyzing their past actions, customers can receive targeted promotions. There are also opportunities to upsell/cross sell. AR provides good opportunities to make navigation, product finding, and promotion overlays easier.
- In-App Purchases
Stores can eliminate the need for customers to go to the cashier at the end of shopping by enabling scan-and-go applications or walk-out technologies – something that Amazon has already demonstrated through its new-age stores.
- Video Intelligence
Intelligent real-time video can help in effective store management by monitoring the movement of individual customers and as a useful tool for customer-density management. Video data combined with AR can be valuable in footfall management.
Infosys and the AWS Retail Industry team collaborated closely in building a “Boundless Store,” simulating how machine vision and ML can contribute toward a broader Just Walk Out-like experience. The platform is built using AWS cloud-native services like Amazon SageMaker, Amazon S3, and Amazon EC2, and is designed as a ready-to-use platform for retailers. The platform enables retailers to easily aggregate, manage, and place inventory and run real-time insights.
The Boundless Store solution showcased some of the initial building blocks needed for a complete JWO solution (e.g., solving for object detection, perimeter tracking) and demonstrated how the solution adds an item to a virtual “shopping cart” when a customer takes it off the shelf. It also illustrated additional use cases such as in-store analytics, loss prevention, and sentiment analysis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically shortened the timeframe for retailers to confront their ongoing challenges and the uncertainties of future threats. Retailers should explore the back-end systems and integration frameworks needed as well as the execution-ready solutions available to build the foundations for a “cashier-less” or “friction-less” experience. The sooner they adopt alternative shopping options such as JWO, the better prepared they’ll be to meet consumer expectations of this new era.