By Subramanian Kunchithapatham Forbes Councils Member
VP of Engineering at Sensormatic Solutions, leading retail innovation through emerging technologies within Senosrmatic IQ.
Brick-and-mortar retailers were among those hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last spring, stores across the globe closed as a result of widespread lockdown measures, causing a decrease in both overall in-store traffic and revenue. But it wasn’t all negative: Some retailers viewed the crisis as an opportunity to adapt to changing customer needs by accelerating their digital transformations and enhancing their brick-and-mortar store and online operations.
Despite the pandemic-driven increase in online shopping, the physical store remains critical to shoppers and retailers alike. Major corporations like Bloomingdale’s and Apple have embraced ideas like small-format stores, while other trends like “buy online, pick-up in store” (BOPIS) and curbside pickup have given customers new ways to shop and help brick-and-mortar retailers compete with online retailers.
Some retail locations have become “dark stores,” converting their spaces into local fulfillment centers rather than customer-facing showrooms. Others have gone in the opposite direction, embracing an “experience only” model through which customers can view and try items in the store and order them for home delivery at a later date.
Each of these trends has been enabled by emerging technologies, including computer vision, digital kiosks, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and 5G. Here’s a glimpse at how these new technologies can be used to empower retailers to create a better shopping experience that caters to the evolving needs of their customers.
Utilizing existing camera infrastructure, computer vision can help retailers solve new challenges by adding emerging applications for customer insights, measuring both customer and associate engagement, inventory tracking and more. With many stores shifting to smaller format operations, inventory tracking has become particularly important. With BOPIS and curbside pickup options on the rise, stores need to know exactly what they have in stock and when. The results of a recent McKinsey & Company survey confirmed that 60% of U.S. consumers who used BOPIS in 2020 intend to continue to do so after the pandemic ends.
Computer vision can also help better manage the customer experience. Cameras outside the store can trigger an alert when many people are waiting or inform employees when action is needed. While this can help with queue busting, this has also helped enforce social distancing, occupancy limits and mask mandates over the course of the pandemic.
Small stores have their advantages, but one of the drawbacks is less showroom space. Customers like to browse, and they often want to visualize their purchase. Digital engagement enables the “try,” “check” and “view” aspects of the buying experience, allowing the spirit of the traditional store to live on, while also streamlining the shopping experience in a way online shoppers have come to expect.
Shoppers in an apparel store use a digital kiosk to look at all available colors and combinations they can choose from, rather than sifting through physical items — but the technology has more future-focused uses, as well. Cross-referencing digital engagement opportunities with in-store promotions and conversions can provide valuable insight into the success of a campaign, the strength of a product line and more.
Digital engagement kiosks can also collect information about shopper browsing habits, what they buy or don’t buy and which items are purchased together. Over time, this can help draw valuable correlations between in-store traffic and orders.
RFID technology enables automatic identification and tracking of merchandise. In its infancy, this made the technology useful primarily for in-store cycle counting, but today, its uses extend far beyond that, providing visibility for the complete end-to-end supply chain. This has translated to better demand planning and more sustainable operational efficiency for retailers.
Today, a significant benefit of RFID is inventory visibility. Stores can use RFID to track specific inventory counts, and customers can check online to see whether a store has the item in stock. They can also track their order online and know exactly when it’s ready for in-store pickup. Maintaining this level of precision, accuracy and visibility, as well as inventory control, not only helps improve the customer experience but also reduces shrinkage and improves expense control.
Connected devices are the new normal. Technology such as cameras, point-of-sale devices, people counters and digital kiosks are all increasingly network-enabled. 5G networks will make it easier than ever for stores to benefit from the connectivity they need to power these new technologies, with digital signage, shopper recognition software and other valuable tools enabled by this new, faster way to connect.
Ultimately, 5G enables greater technology usage in the store, which translates to a streamlined checkout experience, stronger inventory intelligence and, ultimately, happier customers. Greater connectivity also powers many of these trends, enabling better data collection, shopper tracking, marketing analysis and more. Reliable connectivity for all devices can transform the retail experience in today’s increasingly interconnected world.
Digital Transformation Paves The Way Forward
Research results have shown that the in-store experience is still important to customers, but new and emerging trends have forced retailers to shift how they approach meeting the needs of those customers. The retail industry expects to see a rise in smaller-format and experience-centered stores as retailers look closely at their investments and seek to move further along their digital transformation journey.
Modern technology has allowed both large and small retailers to pivot to a more agile and responsive customer experience, and tools like 5G and RFID have increased the interconnectivity of those stores. At the same time, computer vision and improved digital engagement have helped improve the in-store customer experience.
Even as the world emerges from the pandemic, the face of customer engagement continues to shift toward a more focused experience, predicated on getting customers the products they need quickly and easily. Savvy business leaders should investigate whether they can use these technologies to elevate that customer experience.
Follow Subramanian Kunchithapatham on LinkedIn and check out his website. He is VP of Engineering at Sensormatic Solutions, leading retail innovation through emerging technologies within Senosrmatic IQ.