The coronavirus pandemic has introduced new challenges for businesses all over the world — especially in the retail sector. With retail already undergoing a massive transformation thanks to new, integrated technologies, like machine learning for product recognition, mobile scanning and electronic point-of-sale systems, customer behavior tracking and heightened customer demands, COVID-19 represents a major test of traditional retail models.
As businesses resume operations, retailers have been forced to adjust to new rules and protocols around sanitation, packaging, social distancing requirements and more. In order to successfully navigate this "new normal" while also delivering the service experiences customers have grown to expect, retailers must embrace new tools and ways of doing business — or risk being left behind as the rest of the world enters a period of recovery.
Adaptability and flexibility to be critical
Retailers preparing to adjust to new customer expectations must establish flexible channels throughout their stores — from back-end operations to front-end processes and procedures. They must anticipate and adapt to new customer needs as quickly as they arise. This can include reconfiguring store layouts to accommodate social distancing and ramping up cleaning and disinfecting processes.
Store digitalization will be a key driver of adaptability in the retail space. Digitizing hardware, software and related processes helps reduce friction in customer journeys, making interactions between staff and customers more efficient, and thus, lowering total cost of ownership for the store operations.
Digitalization can take many forms: self-service technology, digital apps, mobile self-scanning solutions and more. Before COVID-19, customers were already beginning to embrace these tools. In a 2019 survey conducted by Nielsen on behalf of Diebold Nixdorf, nearly half of respondents who usually preferred a staffed checkout indicated they would rather use a self-checkout lane if there was a line/queue at the staffed lane.
Given public health officials' recommendations regarding social distancing and minimizing contact with individuals outside the household, self-service checkout is a perfect example of how store digitalization can facilitate important adjustments to the shopping experience.
Another example of retailers implementing store digitalization to give customers control of their own shopping experience is by offering "scan and go" mobile technology. This not only reduces congestion at checkouts, but also enables customers to shop, pack and check out contact free.
The self-service kiosk is another option of retail technology designed to give customers control. As restaurants open back up with new social distancing provisions in place, self-service solutions may quickly become the preferred method of food ordering. Self-service kiosks have been around, but they have adapted to global shifts and become more innovative — and recent events have given new reasons to value self-service kiosks. Grocery store bistros and hospitality hotspots like Dave & Busters are considering kiosks — beyond QSRs — for reloading powerup cards.
Customer and staff journeys must align
In addition to enacting new policies and metrics to create a safe and efficient experience for customers, retailers need to make adjustments to ensure the safety and productivity of their staff. In many cases, this involves redistributing staff members to different store locations or to perform new tasks. Stores may want to station staff members at the entrance to perform temperature checks, as well as outside to help manage lines/queues, sanitize shopping carts and ensure the store does not become too crowded to practice social distancing.
Another approach for retailers would be to optimize the shopping experience for the customer by designing and enabling staff journeys in such a way that staff members are in the right place at the right time to best serve the customer. Even outside the context of a pandemic, customers have always been frustrated when items they wanted to purchase are out of stock.
By continuously monitoring sales and deploying staff members to replenish items as they run out, retailers can align the staff and customer journeys to improve the customer's experience. To ensure that the customer and staff journey remains intact, retailers must equip staff with the necessary tools to perform these new duties. Once employees have the tools, retailers can then successfully give customers what they want: control with self-service.
Integrated tech drives efficient customer experiences
Now more than ever, customers demand an efficient retail experience that gets them in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Integrated technology can help retailers cater to this important customer priority in a number of ways.
It can enable shopping options like Buy Online, Pick-up In Store where customers have the option to order items immediately online, or cashierless technology options that give customers control in the palm of their hand. Both BOPIS and cashierless technology allow the customer to obtain their desired products efficiently and according to their preferred timing and delivery methods.
Amazon took tech-driven efficiency a step further when it introduced its first brick-and-mortar locations: fully automated, cashierless self-service stores where technology detects the customers' purchases as they leave the store and complete their transactions without the customer ever having to stop at a checkout. These locations exemplify the possibilities technology introduces to retailers looking to optimize their customers' journeys post-COVID and beyond.
There is no denying that retail will look different in a post-pandemic world, but a customer's experience will remain a key factor in satisfying the need for connection and engagement. Retailers will need to adopt new protocols that challenge them to think creatively through the use of existing technologies, self-checkout, kiosks and/or mobile pay to satisfy these new and possibly permanent needs of customers.
The great thing about these technology options are that not all of them are new — many are tried and proven to be effective.
As we've seen firsthand, today's environment has accelerated the adoption of self-service retail solutions, a trend that will create a lasting effect on long-term customer expectations. Therefore, it is imperative that retailers continuously listen to and respond to their customers' demands by implementing technology that puts the customer back in control.
By establishing adaptable, flexible channels throughout retail stores, aligning staff and customer journeys, and leveraging experiential technologies to optimize the customer experience, retailers can prepare their businesses to resume operations and embrace the future.
First appeared in: Kiosk Marketplace