Here are four tips and strategies by an expert in retail automation that brick-and-mortar businesses can weave into their digital metamorphosis efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed—overnight—the way retailers operate; but the future of retail was always going digital.

The events of 2020 merely forced retailers to confront digital transformation on a much shorter timeline than before. As Asia inches towards economic recovery, measures implemented during the pandemic’s onset are likely to remain enforced, which means trends that gained traction such as Buy Online, Pickup in Store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup (allows customers to collect their order from a convenient location, rather than having the item shipped to their home) are here to stay.

Overall shopper behavior has changed for good as well. According to research from Euromonitor, the pandemic has resulted in significantly reduced impulse shopping. As a result of consumers having to schedule previously spontaneous activities, walk-ins have given way to purposeful shopping and dining trips.  

While it is fair to say that retailers who that had already digitalized before the pandemic did fare slightly better than those that did not, retailers will now need to think of new ways to merge the in-store and ecommerce experience.

In a hybrid future that balances shoppers’ pent-up desire to return to a ‘browse-before-you-buy’ reality, maintaining a safe, convenient, and frictionless shopping experience will be essential to retailers’ success.

Here are four ways the right kind of technology can help:

  1. Using IoT for data intelligence
    While vaccination drives worldwide are leading to relaxations of rules on business operations, safeguarding employees and customers remains paramount. Consumers are looking for retailers to provide assurance of safety as they decide how, when and where they shop.

    To manage the complex balancing of evolving pandemic-control requirements while managing their staffing, retailers can use sensors and analytics to collect data throughout the premises and discern behavioral or movement patterns that need addressing.

    However, the data needs to be unified and not be siloed away across disparate branch stores. Unifying the data and keeping it actionable can be achieved by using a platform that consolidates insights, optimizes different work schedules, and detects areas where operational efficiency can be improved. Thermal sensor data logging can also be built into the system, allowing stores to free up temperature-taking manpower for higher value activities in-store.
  2. Reducing inventory distortion
    As more customers rely on BOPIS for their orders, retailers will need to rely on real-time inventory data. The price to pay for inventory distortion (out-of-stocks and overstocks) is high: an IHL Consulting Group report estimated a US$570bn loss in revenue that can be directly attributed to the pandemic.

    With most physical inventories inaccurate by as much as 15% – 25% due to blind-spots and inventory shrinkage, retailers need to rely on systems to identify and react to trends in real time. RFID and computer vision can help gather accurate inventory counts using, and then applying AI and ML to that data to support computer-aided ordering.

    This data, when consolidated with other sources, can also reveal an understanding of new shopping habits and trends, going a long way in preparing retailers for any sudden purchasing peaks (or future toilet paper outages).
  3. Meet evolving consumer needs head-on with digital agility
    Shopping has shifted from indulgence to purpose nowadays. Consumer expenditure is expected to vary with these changing times, and the outlook for retail spending will be dependent on how retailers can pivot to meet new evolving consumer needs. For example, consumers are now craving the convenience they previously took for granted, while still expecting the same level of hyper-personalized sales and service as they return to physical stores.

    By integrating data from e-commerce, offline and omnichannel sources to understand the end-to-end shopper journey, retailers can provide different, personalized touchpoints for shoppers. With delightful customer service comes loyalty and regular patronage.
  4. Surviving through digital flexibility
    It has been said that a key consumer trend for 2021 is flexibility, which means retailers will need to adapt to fast-changing circumstances. Sales are likely to continue an online migration, meaning unified commerce will benefit retailers as the sales mix tilts further to e-commerce.

    Smart sensors, IoT infrastructure, and other external applications will not only simplify operations but allow retailers to account for rapidly changing circumstances. This also keeps the door open to advanced solutions to connect shoppers, merchandise, and data in new and innovative ways.

The future of brick-and-mortar retail is still unclear, but the pandemic has set in motion a digital transformation that retailers can now leverage. With new consumer behavioral trends emerging and evolving, it is now up to retailers to rise to the challenge.

By using the right kinds of technology in the right ways, retailers can develop an understanding of new customers’ shopping habits, as well as take advantage of nascent opportunities for growth.