Retailers are increasingly beginning to turn to technology to solve the challenges presented by the Covid-19 era. Here are eight examples of tech innovations that are being used to improve the in-store shopping experience.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the way that we shop.
During the period when lockdown restrictions were tightest in many parts of the world, ecommerce saw an unprecedented boom, with shoppers turning to online channels and delivery to buy goods that they couldn’t, or didn’t feel able, to go out to physical stores to buy.
Even now that those restrictions are easing and the vast majority of brick-and-mortar retail stores have reopened, fears about contamination persist. Shop owners are keen to earn their customers’ trust by demonstrating that they have put processes in place to manage the risk, and customers are keen to shop in an environment where they can feel confident and safe.
On top of measures like employing thorough cleaning regimes, requiring customers wear face coverings, making hand sanitiser widely available and laying down markings to encourage shoppers to physically distance themselves, retailers are increasingly beginning to turn to technology to solve these problems and improve the shopping experience.
From digital signage and QR codes to scan, pay and go technology, many technological solutions are emerging or coming into greater prominence that promise an enhanced, smooth and Covid-19 safe in-store shopping experience. And depending on their success, we could see these technologies becoming part of the ‘new normal’ retail experience in the longer term.
Here are eight examples of in-store technology innovations for the Covid-19 era.
1) Scan, Pay & Go
Scan, Pay & Go is the name commonly given to technology that allows shoppers to use their smartphones to scan the goods they want to buy as they move around a store, usually via a dedicated app, before paying for them and leaving the store – no queueing or checkout process required.
There was already interest in the potential for Scan, Pay & Go technology to provide a more efficient shopping experience before Covid-19 spread across the globe, and a few supermarkets had conducted trials of the technology. Now, there is an even stronger use case for the technology as reducing queues and improving flow around shops means fewer chances for shoppers to come into close contact and potentially spread infection.
In April, UK supermarket Asda rolled out its Scan & Go Mobile programme to 200 additional stores in a bid to reduce contact with checkout staff, meaning that the technology is now available at all 581 Asda stores across the UK. Shoppers can use either a special handset or their phone with a dedicated app to scan goods, and the app or handset will also display a running total cost of the goods scanned. Asda has touted this as a feature that will help shoppers to budget and keep tabs on their spending in a financially difficult time – while also helping them to shop at a distance.
An informational video showing how to use Scan & Go Mobile to shop at Asda
The Henderson Group, the parent company behind the Spar chain of supermarkets, partnered with white-label ‘scan and go’ technology provider Ubamarket to bring Scan, Pay & Go technology to three Republic of Ireland stores in mid-April. Another retail group in Ireland, BWG Foods, announced in late August that it would be piloting Scan, Pay & Go technology in two locations with a view to rolling it out more widely across its network of more than 1,000 independent retailers.
The technology should also allow customers to scan products remotely from home for Click & Collect or home delivery orders, further reducing the time spent in-store, and retailers are also expected to be able to place limits on the quantity of goods purchased by each shopper, which will help with stock management.
In late July, Marks & Spencer tripled the number of M&S stores that offered checkout-free shopping by expanding the availability of its Mobile Pay Go technology to 310 food halls, up from 100 previously. The Mobile Pay Go scheme and associated app allows customers who are signed up to its Sparks loyalty scheme to scan and pay for goods with their smartphones up to a total value of £30.
M&S noted that Covid-19 had brought about a “significant move towards contact-free shopping” at its stores, with more than 10,000 new users joining the Mobile Pay Go scheme between March and July. The most recent rollout also significantly expanded the scheme beyond a primarily London-based network of stores to the wider UK, with Mobile Pay Go available in locations such as Falkirk, Belfast, Aberystwyth, Carlisle and Dover.
Sainsbury’s supermarket has also announced that it will be accelerating the rollout of its SmartShop Mobile Pay scheme to “the majority” of its store estate by Christmas, with the technology made available at “most” of its 770 Sainsbury’s Local branches, up from 250 at the time of the announcement in early October. According to the supermarket, some stores have seen more than 50% of their sales come from SmartShop Mobile Pay, with the scheme driving 37% of total sales over the past quarter.
2) Vending machines
In a new era of contactless retail, vending machines are having a moment in the spotlight. Suddenly, the humble vending machine is being transformed from a clunky, awkward coin-fed contraption that dispenses sugary drinks and snacks (and is as likely to eat your money as it is to actually dispense something) into a slick, high-tech and hygienic device that can sell anything from medical supplies to salads, masks to hot meals.
Grocery retailers are reimagining vending machines as a source of fresh produce, condiments and pre-packaged sandwiches: last August, Marks & Spencer began trialling a new food-to-go vending machine at its Simply Food store in Cherwell Valley, selling sandwiches and ready meals alongside crisps and drinks. In Germany, Aldi Süd has been testing 24-hour vending machines with 25-30 grocery products for sale, so that consumers can buy groceries even when stores are closed.
In the United States, automated retail platform Swyft has partnered with CVS Pharmacy to install branded vending kiosks in 40 hotel lobbies across the country. For hotels, this means they can offer essentials like phone chargers, toiletries and over-the-counter medicine to guests directly within the building, saving them the added risk of going outside into a store. For retailers, the kiosks effectively expand their retail footprint and decrease the likelihood of consumers going to a competitor to make a purchase.
Hot meal, salad and ready meal vending machines are also being touted as a way for offices to provide meals to their employees without requiring them to leave the building, again saving them a trip outside and giving them a ‘contact free’ way of buying their lunch.
Vending machines are even being pressed into service to sell more high-end products. In the Coupole building of upmarket department store Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann, H&M Group brand ‘& Other Stories’ is trialling a vending machine for cosmetics and fragrances, developed by H&M Group’s innovation hub The Laboratory. The vending machine is designed to serve as a “mini version” of & Other Stories’ stores, making a selection of the brand’s best-loved products available for quick purchase and introducing new customers to its product offering.
Vending machines aren’t a solution that will suit every retailer; they function in a different manner to shops, and retailers will have to give consideration to the location of their machine (or machines) and how often they can restock, as well as how well certain types of products will keep if they remain unsold. However, the vending machine is emerging as another facet of the retail experience in the Covid-19 era that potentially offers convenience and safety to consumers while allowing retailers to expand and diversify how they sell their products.
3) Dynamic digital signage
Markings and stickers placed on the floors of retail stores are a common way to enforce social distancing guidelines and manage the flow of shoppers throughout the store. However, they are a fairly one-dimensional solution. Some retailers are now beginning to embrace a more high-tech solution to managing in-store footfall: digital signage.
Samsung Electronics UK has partnered with Quividi, an audience and campaign intelligence platform for digital signage, to create a “next-generation solution” for keeping shoppers safe in-store. Samsung will create digital signboards, powered by Quividi’s analytics solution, that bolster in-store safety and security protocols and help retailers manage social distancing measures.
Using data capture devices like in-store cameras, the technology can count how many people are entering a given store, and can even detect whether or not they are wearing a face covering and use thermal scanning to identify shoppers with a high temperature who might not know they’re showing symptoms. The data is analysed in real-time, and determines what messages are shown on the signs via real-time triggers and conditional scheduling.
Retailers may have to implement the signage carefully to prevent customers from feeling uncomfortably surveilled while they do their shopping, but there are considerable benefits to using the technology. As well as being able to enforce social distancing guidelines more effectively, especially over a larger store area, retailers would be able to gain valuable data about foot traffic and the flow of people throughout the store that they could use to improve store layout. The signs also have the capacity to display adverts and promotional content alongside informational messages, which could be a needed source of additional revenue and sales.
Another digital signage solution for retailers is being developed by Panintelligence, a data analytics software provider, in collaboration with Everyangle, an Irish computer vision applications developer, and a San Francisco-based smart camera provider Cisco Meraki. It will use in-store smart cameras to monitor the number of people in a store and display the information on signage, showing shoppers whether it is safe to enter.
According to Business Up North, the solution is being developed for a “major food retailer” in the UK and will be trialled in a limited selection of stores with a view to being rolled out across the entire store network.
While digital signs that display store occupancy might like they have a limited lifespan once the immediate danger of the coronavirus pandemic has passed, if they become commonplace within stores, retailers could keep them as a means of gathering more data on footfall, preventing overcrowding (especially on holiday occasions) and displaying relevant promotions and adverts within the store.
4) QR codes
QR codes are experiencing a renaissance at the moment in sectors like healthcare and hospitality as a contactless means of accessing information, activating virtual experiences, and tracking movements for the purposes of contact tracing. Small wonder, then, that they are also beginning to make their way into retail.
QR codes are already well-established in countries like China as a contactless payment method, and now this usage is also making an appearance in the west. In the United States, PayPal has partnered with digital wallet Venmo to roll out QR code payment technology across all 8,200 CVS Pharmacy stores in the country, as part of a multi-year agreement between PayPal and payment solutions provider InComm to “bring acceptance of PayPal and Venmo QR codes to retailers across the country”.
The QR codes will give CVS Pharmacy customers the option of paying for their purchases with stored debit or credit cards, bank accounts, their PayPal balance, PayPal Credit, Venmo balance or Venmo Rewards – as long as they have an account with PayPal or Venmo.
Mark Britto, Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer at PayPal, hailed the “incredible acceleration of digital payments and touch-free payments” that has come about due to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that, “QR codes … provide retailers an additional payment method that furthers this touch-free mission and continues the growth of digital payments for all partners in the ecosystem.”
Venmo has also launched a new feature called Business Profiles that allows small businesses to accept payments via a QR code, track business transactions and access customer analytics. It will initially be piloted with a limited number of iOS users before expanding to Android users, and later becoming available to all sellers for free.
Outside of facilitating payments, QR codes can also be a useful means of sharing business contact information. In July, WhatsApp announced a feature that will allow WhatsApp Business users to create and share a QR code that when scanned, will initiate a WhatsApp chat with the business in question. Businesses have the option of pre-populating the chat with a message to start the conversation, or simply allowing the customer to initiate contact.
In India, Amazon has been using QR codes to augment the in-person shopping and payment experience with Smart Stores. Launched in June, Smart Stores are virtual storefronts that are activated by scanning a QR code with the Amazon app. Customers can select the products they want to buy in the app and check out with Amazon Pay. As an added bonus, local shops that use Smart Stores can offer Amazon Pay coupons to attract new customers and incentivise return visits from past customers.
Another QR code solution aims to connect bricks and mortar retail more seamlessly with ecommerce, while also tackling the issue of limited stock availability in stores. Hero, a virtual shopping app that works with brands including Nike and Levi’s, has introduced an in-store QR codes feature that will produce a unique QR code for any product in a store’s catalogue (whether or not it is available in-store). When scanned by a customer, it will take them to a product page where they can buy the item and continue communicating with the shop assistant who served them after leaving the store.
Though QR code payments and other retail activations are still relatively under-used in many parts of the world, Covid-19 has set the stage for them to potentially become much more widespread as a tool for linking online and offline, conducting contactless transactions (with extra advantages like the ability to incorporate discount vouchers and loyalty points), and generally enable a smoother and safer retail experience.
5) Virtual fitting rooms
With home try-ons on the rise due to the coronavirus lockdown, retailers and technology providers have begun to innovate solutions that could help bridge the gap between the online shopping experience and the in-store experience when it comes to fittings and try-ons. Now that retailers are re-opening but changing rooms have remained closed due to hygiene concerns, these solutions may be moving in-store.
Fit:Match, a 3D body scanning and virtual fitting tool, is partnering with malls in the United States to bring its fit technology to various locations and help apparel retailers boost their bottom line. Three malls in Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas will be opening Fit:Match kiosks from September, which will allow shoppers to be 3D-measured (or “Fitched”) and then start shopping online with more than 50 partner brands, including Under Armour, Ted Baker and Nili Lotan.
As with many technology types covered in this article, Fit:Match’s virtual fitting room technology was developed and established before the pandemic broke out, but has a much stronger use case now.
Another company in the same space, 3DLook, has developed a voice-activated, browser-based scanning system called ‘Hands-Free’, which will then generate personalised size and fit recommendations, or send the measurements to a business that creates clothing to order. The company recently revealed exclusively to WWD that it has partnered with Tailored Brands, the parent company behind Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, to bring its body scanning technology to more than 1,000 stores in the autumn.
Virtual fitting and body-scanning technology has previously proven difficult to scale. However, it could prove to be a lifeline for tailoring and made-to-order apparel businesses that have suffered greatly during the pandemic, as well as for clothing retailers in general, who will have a good chance of increasing their conversion rate and decreasing their rate of returns with personalised fit recommendations.
6) Click and collect
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought click and collect, often somewhat overlooked as a means of obtaining online orders, into new prominence as a way to reduce in-person contact and time spent shopping in-store. Building supplies and electricals retailer Toolstation is due to open up a number of click and collect only stores across the UK in response to “a rapid growth in Toolstation click and collect sales”, while high street bakery Greggs has also announced it will be introducing a click and collect service as part of a strategy to focus more on digital sales.
In grocery retail, budget supermarket Aldi has been gradually rolling out a click and collect service to stores up and down the country after an initial trial in Loughborough that began in mid-September. Prior to April this year, Aldi had not sold groceries online at all; now, the German supermarket chain has made click and collect available in nine stores across the UK, with a further six to be added by the end of October.
Marks & Spencer has also made its click and collect strategy a key focus of its accelerated digital transformation programme, ‘Never the Same Again’. In August, it partnered with Doddle, a provider of click-and-collect and returns technology, to provide two new click-and-collect experiences: in-store contactless collection, and a ‘drive-up’ click and collect. M&S believes that both of these models will help customers to shop with more certainty in the current climate, while also offering a more convenient and seamless experience.
The new click-and-collect experiences are initially being trialled at three stores, which M&S will use to gather extensive data and customer feedback in order to understand demand. It is hoped that the technology partnership with Doddle will also made click-and-collect more efficient for M&S employees to manage in-store.
M&S is trialling ‘drive-up’ click and collect at three of its stores in partnership with click and collect and returns technology provider Doddle. Image: Marks & Spencer
Click and collect partnerships between two retailers can often be mutually beneficial, providing one with an expanded network of click and collect locations and the other with additional footfall as customers visit its stores to collect their goods. John Lewis and the Co-op are clearly hoping to take advantage of this with a major expansion of their existing click and collect partnership that was announced in July.
The expansion, which began in July and was completed in September, brought John Lewis & Partners’ click and collect service to 400 new Co-op stores across the UK, bringing the total of Co-op partner locations to 505 and the total number of John Lewis click and collect locations to more than 900.
While the online shopping boom might seem like good news for retail and for digital transformation, it has severely impacted many retailers’ margins due to the high cost of delivery and logistics. Providing or expanding their provision of click and collect, therefore, is an opportunity for retailers to save on these costs without missing out on the benefits that online channels have to offer.
How click & collect could bring traditional retailers back to life
7) Virtual queueing
Another technology becoming increasingly commonplace in retail as a means of managing customer flow and overcrowding is virtual queuing technology. John Lewis and Waitrose have partnered with Qudini, a queue management software provider, to trial their virtual queuing technology at three John Lewis stores and six Waitrose supermarkets across the UK.
Shoppers can scan a QR code, or send a text to a particular number, to either join a virtual queue or book a fixed timeslot for getting into the shop, which saves them from waiting around in a physical queue outside the store. Store staff can also use the Qudini app to track and manage the number of customers currently inside the store.
Another supermarket retailer trialling virtual queues is Sainsbury’s, which has been using a virtual queueing app called Ufirst to experiment with queue management in five stores during the first half of August. For those customers who do not have a smartphone, Sainsbury’s colleagues can add them to the queue (though it is unknown how they would manage to track their progress or receive a notification that they were at the front). If the trial proves to be a success, Sainsbury’s plans to roll virtual queuing out to branches across the country.
Sainsbury’s supermarket has partnered with Ufirst to implement a virtual queueing app. Image: Sainsbury’s
Outdoor sports equipment retailer Ellis Brigham has also adopted an online booking system for in-store customer appointments, and will be using Qudini’s virtual queuing software to manage walk-in customers. The retailer is also considering implementing tablets or kiosks that will allow customers to view the Ellis Brigham website while in-store, learn more about product ranges, and access all stock regardless of the size of branch they are visiting.
While many of these solutions are still in the trial phases and have yet to be rolled out on a wider scale, there is clearly a lot of innovation happening. Established technologies like click-and-collect and Scan, Pay & Go are seeing increased uptake and wider deployment by retailers, while newer emerging technologies like digital signage and virtual fitting rooms are being seriously tested and considered.
Whatever the developments of the next few months, it seems certain that the retail world that emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic will be a more technological one – hopefully to the benefit of both customers and retailers.
The notion of robots patrolling shop aisles to perform maintenance tasks might seem like a very futuristic one, but Covid-19 has brought it a little closer to becoming a reality.
In the United States, robotics company Simbe Robotics has unveiled the latest version of a shelf-scanning robot called Tally that moves autonomously up and down the aisles of a store, collecting real-time data about product stock levels and alerting store employees. This can reduce the number of human employees on the shop floor and free up store staff to spend more time bringing products from the backroom and helping customers.
Simbe Robotics’ current retail clients include store chains Giant Eagle, Carrefour, Groupe Casino, Decathlon and Schnuck Markets, which in September announced that it would be introducing Tally to 46 additional stores, meaning that more than half of Schnucks stores will use robot scanning technology. The retailer also uses Tally to provide product location data to Instacart shoppers and users of its Schnucks Rewards app, making for a more efficient shop.
Since it first began using the robots in 2017, Schnucks has reportedly seen a 14-fold increase in out of stock detection (compared with manual auditing) and at least a 20% reduction in out of stock items.
Another retailer making use of a rival solution is wholesaler Sam’s Club, which has partnered with AI company Brain Corp to employ more than 370 floor-scrubbing robots that also have shelf analytics capabilities. The robots can verify product pricing, ensure that items are located in the right place according to the store’s planogram, and check for out-of-stock items.
While these types of robots are probably on the expensive side for many retailers and probably won’t become a widespread fixture in stores any time soon, they have a number of benefits in reducing the number of staff that need to be present on the shop floor and providing data that can make the shopping process more efficient for customers, both major advantages while Covid-19 transmission is a pressing concern.
Digital Shift Report: Q4 2020