Jessica Chapplow, head of e-commerce at Havas Market, delves into the new shopping behaviors that have arisen as a result of the pandemic, and the brands that have been quickest to adapt, as part of The Drum’s Deep Dive into Retail.
With heightened concerns surrounding personal health and hygiene and the fear of future pandemics, people are quickly adopting touchless behaviors, replacing handshakes and hugs with waves, nods and elbow bumps. In fact, 80% of UK shoppers will change the way they engage with touchscreens and other public technology following the Covid-19 outbreak. These fluctuations in customer sentiment are triggering a knock-on effect within the retail environment. Gone are the days of heavy interaction with retail staff and leisurely trips up and down the aisle. The modern, post-Covid-19 consumer wants calm commerce: sanitized serenity in the form of grab-and-go, touchless functionality, embedded across the shopper journey.
These shifts in consumer behavior are forcing retailers to adapt quicker than ever before to deliver exceptional omnichannel experiences at a time where human contact is still valued but not always viable.
We are already seeing stores leveraging digital signage to display or deploy new safety measures – such as regular sanitization, touchless payments and crowd-limiting for social distancing – so they can provide customers with a safe, enjoyable shopping experience.
Coty is one example of an early adopter that is already rolling out digitally enabled touchless fragrance testing devices intended for use at beauty retailers over the next 12 months, giving customers control over fragrance discovery in-store. These types of low-touch technologies are crucial within a category such as beauty that is so reliant on sampling to help create a less invasive testing experience, increase the lifespan of tester bottles and provide the retailer with additional data.
The infinite aisle and the invisible point of sale
These types of digital-first features bring a higher degree of certainty and efficiency to the shopping experience, and they effectively allow the consumer to literally become the point-of-sale (POS). This reduces or eliminates the need for in-store, person-to-person transactions and makes for a frictionless experience both on and offline.
In digital channels, merchants understand their customers’ product and payment preferences and can tailor recommendations, promotions and marketing communications accordingly. That depth of knowledge can transition to the store experience. Whatever way you look at it, the consumer is experiencing something new, and the ultimate POS/checkout may soon be invisible, as bricks-and-mortar shops are further reimagined and reinvigorated to be fit for calmer commerce experiences.
The store of the future: putting the ‘person’ in personalization
Imagine an experience where the selection of products presented on physical clothes rails is based on the items you have in your personal digital wish list. You can scan QR codes to view infinite shopping shelves and even access your recently viewed items through virtual mirrors in the fitting room. This seamlessness could even extend to the purchase and delivery phase of the customer journey, enabling you to complete your purchase from home, have your bags delivered at a later date and even plan out the rest of your day through the assistance of an in-store concierge. This isn’t a distant dream – the future is already here. Luxury retailer Browns is seizing the opportunity with its ‘store of the future’ concept, harnessing low-touch technology in a way that offers a hyper-personalized omnichannel experience to consumers.
The touchless store of the future will undoubtedly rely on more personalization using similar tactics deployed online.
The rewards for retailers
Although there is a strong focus on the consumer benefits of touchless retail, the rewards for retailers are just as significant. For example, some retailers are adopting smart tags to improve product tracking and aid a faster self-checkout. Retailers adopted smart tags long before the pandemic gave rise to an integrated digital ecosystem that delivers contactless shopping, grab-and-go convenience and vastly improved inventory management.
River Island has increased the accuracy of its stock monitoring from 70% to 98% after implementing a radio frequency identification (RFID) system across 280 stores and warehouses (Source: CompareSoft). Consumers now expect retailers to know what products they have in stock in real-time, with 80% saying they are less inclined to visit a store when the website doesn’t provide current product availability (source: Epsilon, The power of me: The impact of personalization on marketing performance). Retailers should invest in technology that aids a touchless journey, whether that is new sensor-based devices or RFID stock systems to display accurate stock numbers to customers shopping online.
The imperatives of a touch-free experience
The best applications of technology meet customer needs to provide seamless and convenient experiences. Retailers that act now will have a head start in the new normal, whereas the ones that lag behind will be left to catch up in a highly competitive space. So, what do brands need to do to thrive in this new landscape?
Walk the technology tightrope. Successful retailers must strike a delicate balance between amplifying the aspects that consumers have missed most about going to the shops, while ensuring the environment makes them feel safe and protected. There needs to be a strategic reason behind adopting touchless technology aside from the desire to be an early adopter. Technology-driven shopping experiences can still be the future – as long as they are strategic and rooted in better serving, not just selling to customers.
Retailers need to analyze at which point of the shopper experience customers want human interactions – and when they don’t. New solutions need to complement more traditional systems rather than completely overhaul them, and retailers must consider how their operating model should flex to accommodate new technologies.
Unmanned doesn’t mean unhuman. Human service and connection are crucial at this time. Staff and service roles will change for each type of retail environment, but it should be in exciting ways which tap into a wider expectation for safe, yet impactful, retail experiences.
Test and learn. With so many unknowns around customer behavior right now, a test and learn approach is a good way for retailers to ensure that the solutions they’re putting in place are low-touch but high-value for both themselves and the customer.
The current pandemic has underscored the critical role that touchless technology can play in a customer journey. While there is much debate around whether one solution will dominate over the others, the smarter bet is on ecosystems in which various technologies play to their particular strengths. Gone are the days when successful digital experiences meant eradicating flaws from your ecommerce platform. In the post-Covid retail market, consumers don’t only expect your digital offerings to work flawlessly – they expect outstanding digital experiences at every interaction with your brand, whether on or offline. The retailers that stand to win in the race to fuel calmer commerce experiences will be those that understand that touchless retail doesn’t have to be soulless.