Article by Mr. Suhale Kapoor, EVP and Co-Founder, Absolutdata
The COVID-19 outbreak has made ‘digital’ an integral part of our everyday retailing ecosystem. In fact, this change has also made the retail experience ‘contactless’, which is now critical to brand-customer relationships. Here’s how:
Psychologically, the contagion has made things difficult for both retailer and consumers as it has stressed the bonds of trust. It has put both sides into a complicated position vis-a-vis naivety, uncertainty, and anxiety around navigating what used to be their usual playground. Thus, retailers and consumers have turned to digital to sail through this crisis.
What is happening?
It is understood that companies on the path of digital business transformation will be better equipped to deal with this disruption. Retailers have invested in digital channels as the primary mechanism of collecting orders and delivering them to stay in business. Stores have shifted from employee-only units to click-and-collect mechanisms of meeting customer demands. Retailers are trying to create a positive brand image by activating online strategies, connecting the right product with the right customers topped with empathetic messaging.
How Technology can help retailers:
AI-ML for Supply Chain and Inventory Management
There are some AI and ML-led forecasting engines that can help retail companies minimize the pandemic’s disruptive impact on their supply chains. Such solutions can provide insights to discover, interpret, and act on real-time information from their entire digital ecosystem. AI and ML can also help develop supply chain metrics to identify at-risk elements in it that can reduce expenses and increase planning efficiency.
Business Intelligence for Visibility and Timely Insights
Business intelligence solutions have been used by a few retailers to know the up-to-the-minute status on managing their store shipments and warehouse inventories. This is done by integrating data from its wholesale and retail systems. Retailers can consolidate their collected data to create a single source of instant insights for their entire workforce. Creating a data warehouse gives overall clarity, visibility into inventory and across the distribution network that enables a retailer to serve customers with greater flexibility and transparency.
Smooth Omnichannel Experience with Robotics
In a digital world, customers are keen on integrated experience across all devices and channels. Retailers, therefore, need to adopt an omnichannel retail strategy with an enterprise-wide inventory management system to stay profitable. Here, automation and robotics in the warehouse can help. Loyalty apps can be used by the customers to buy their regular items which are retrieved and packed in the warehouse by robots and ready for pickup. However, customers can still browse and buy items from the storefront.
Delivery Fulfilment by Optimizing Algorithms
Investments in fulfilment optimizers and store-picking algorithms allow grocers to deliver more products with high-efficiency w.r.t. price and customer experience. Thus, technology will enable retailers to monitor, refresh, and restock inventory in real-time and keep a tab on variations in the pricing and SKU movement.
Supply Chain Agility with Returns Optimizations
Apparel, specialty, and big-box retailers will also gain from having a returns optimization solution. It will help them to deal with increased return levels if people start returning them in volumes. Upgraded versions of supply chain control-tower solutions will also play an important role for supply chain managers to obtain a continuous view of potential threats. It will also lend a framework that helps take corrective actions to better serve the customers.
Virtual in-store Experiences with AR/VR
It is highly likely that customers will still avoid crowded stores and prefer contactless shopping even when lockdown eases. New-age technologies will be used to virtually extend the product experience to the remote users so that physical visits to the store can be minimized or a congregation can be averted. For example, the newly opened Amazon Fresh supermarket has the facility of cashierless checkout. AR/VR can help customers in trying out their collection and proceeding to buy. Lenskart is already implementing this and other companies could benefit by leveraging it as well.
Contactless Payments with Mobile Apps
Contactless payments have been pushed to the mainstream due to the fear of COVID-19 contamination at the point-of-sale systems. As customers are inclined towards contactless payments, retailers are partnering with technology companies to introduce packaged APIs that can connect with mobile apps and enable small and mid-size retailers to offer app-based contactless payments. Walmart, during the initial days of the outbreak in mid-March, introduced a new contactless payment system, Walmart Pay into operations. With it, consumers can simply scan a barcode at the checkout linked to their online credit card information without having to touch anything in the process.
Checkout-Free Retail with AI Computer Vision
Checkout-free retail is what highlights the safety aspects of mobile payments. It comes to life via two ways:
1) Scan-and-Go mobile technology
2) AI Computer Vision (aka AICV)
For Scan-and-Go, the customers walk into the store, use their mobile phones to scan products on the shelves with a retailer’s mobile app, bag the product themselves, and pay electronically by scanning a QR code inside of the app as they exit.
As for AICV, the only difference is that the mobile plays a smaller role. Here, customers scan an app on their phones to enter a store, walk-in, take whatever they want off the shelves and leave the store whenever they want. They are charged much like getting out of the Uber. Cameras and weight sensors in the shelves help to identify product and people movement, whereas, in scan-and-go, the actual scan serves the proxy.
Retail will change forever
The retailers who will survive the unique disruptions of the pandemic are the ones who look at the current situation as an opportunity, regardless of what difficulties they face en-route to recovery. Leveraging data and technology to accelerate innovation and enhance capabilities at all levels will help retailers take the challenges head-on while strengthening their organization for the future.
Retailers should start now, by furthering collaborations to utilise the power of tools and analytics for addressing the challenges inflicted by the pandemic. They should leave no stone unturned to meet the ever-evolving customer’s needs in the New Normal.