Briefly visiting a local store to purchase a couple of items was an activity that many consumers would have taken for granted pre-pandemic, but the initiation of lockdowns and restrictions enforced a temporary end to the high street buzz that was previously common in towns and cities. With restrictions now easing, consumers are starting to return to stores, with encouraging rises of 174% across England and Wales as they exited lockdown in April. While many shoppers are returning for the in-store experience that they have been missing out on over the past 15 months, others are returning to hospitality establishments, such as coffee shops and restaurants, for a long-awaited catch up with friends and family.
With the high street now becoming more of a social hub, more shoppers could be spending less time in individual stores as a result. When combining this with the increased expectation among shoppers for a quick and seamless experience that replicates the online services that they have been using during lockdown, bricks-and-mortar establishments are finding themselves under increasing pressure to adapt their operations to provide a new kind of customer experience. At the core of this change is a move to a connected store. As the next step in the retail evolution, connected stores are increasingly utilising technology such as IoT devices to deliver a better and more efficient shopping experience.
Retail consumers, buoyed by new and rapid digital shopping experiences during the pandemic, are increasingly less likely to interact closely with in-store workers as they look for an experience without queues and delays. The answer for stores is a shift towards digital models, where apps provide an alternative way of scanning items using in-store Wi-Fi to ensure and reliable connectivity.
One such development taking place, especially in supermarkets, is the means for alternative payment via downloaded smartphone apps or dedicated handsets, such as Asda’s Scan & Go, which allow for quick scanning and checkout via dedicated card tills. Marks & Spencer’s Scan & Shop app also highlights the ability for shoppers to skip queues and in turn, benefit from the faster and easier shopping experience.
This is not to say however that the role of the retail colleague will be made redundant, but rather that their role moving forward will evolve to match the seamless experience customers expect. Stores will need to place a greater focus on upskilling and training employees to provide a tailored service to customers. With consumers more informed about products and services due to information available online, utilising communicative technology such as headsets will allow workers to better share knowledge with each other to help serve savvy in-store visitors. Another way this is being implemented is using call points at certain locations in-store, which will allow for colleagues to call for assistance if needed.
Enhancing existing technologies
Speed of service in-store is a customer demand that has no doubt been accelerated by the increasing ease of online shopping. While introducing new technologies, such as apps, to create the seamless experience is increasingly important, retailers also need to focus on enhancing the existing technologies they already have in store. Once derided as frustrating to use, innovations and improvements made to self-service checkouts are now helping to facilitate a quick and easy experience for the customer, particularly as supermarkets such as Tesco have altered its self-checkout tills to calculate how much has been saved as items are scanned by customers around the store.
In implementing technologies that better connect elements of a store, retailers can future-proof their operations. This will be even more crucial as it remains the case that retail continues to feel the force of a labour shortage, and high employee turnover continues to be a trend in the sector. Investing in long-term technology applications to support colleagues will help to maintain a seamless customer experience, even when workers leave and join the business. In addition to helping potential new employees, having a connected store will also make the day-to-day tasks easier for those who remain in their roles and have been under increasing pressure as key workers in recent months. Finally, being able to implement new communicative and seamless technologies in the second half of 2021 should become a simpler process as covid-related systems are phased out, such as monitoring the amount of people in-store, making way for customer experience applications.
Reflecting the online experience
In the era of one-day online delivery and browsable retail departments at the touch of our fingertips, the retail sector is increasingly aware of its need to adapt. Despite online shopping having existed well before the pandemic, many shoppers were still inclined to continue to go to physical stores. However, the necessity to shop online during recent store closures has led consumers to expect the same ease and convenience of e-commerce in all their retail experiences.
Establishing a connected store will not only provide a customer experience that reflects the online experience, but it will also help shoppers ease back into an environment that they may have become accustomed to not being in during the last 15 months. As many will continue to wear masks and practice social distancing even as restrictions are fully eased, the facilitation of a quick, contactless and non-human facing experience will be just as important to meet consumer needs and ultimately help shape the new retail landscape.
Martyn Jones, CCO, VoCoVo