Retail innovations during COVID-19 that will change the industry as we know it

In times of rapid change and crisis, many elements of our business are tested, our people, our processes, stakeholders and technology plans.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, FMCG retailers have been affected in many different ways. They’ve had to transform some of their traditional operations rapidly across many layers, dealing with changed stock demands, in-store hygiene stations, social distancing policies and adjusting operations to facilitate remote working staff.

Around the world, these retailers have been tuning and adjusting their tech to adjust to the new normal and building new systems to tackle new problems in “unprecedented” times. The results are innovations in three key areas, which will likely change retail management as we know it forever.

From virtual queues to click and collect

For the last decade, retailers around the world have been developing in-store networks that drive staff productivity and provide a platform for a great customer experience. Many of these retailers are moving to utilise their existing systems for new functions amid the pandemic. For instance, the combination of security camera feeds with location enabled network analytics, can become a powerful tool for enabling a ‘virtual queue’ app to keep customers moving in and out of stores while complying with social distancing requirements.

With social distancing laws in place, many of us are queueing outside grocery stores as staff manage the number of customers inside. Instead of physically lining up in a queue, forward-thinking retailers can offer virtual queue apps, providing customers with a ‘position in the line’ and an estimated wait time for entry, based on real-time traffic in the store. This way, customers can run nearby errands while waiting their turn. A combination of app data and CCTV can also correlate the number of people in store at any one time and assist to manage exit and entry keeping trade flowing while remaining compliant.

Another way we’ve seen retailers use smart apps to their advantage and encourage a zero-contact environment is through click and collect offerings. Over the past couple of months, we have seen a surge in this service offering – from grocers, to restaurants and fashion retailers. The service delivers real convenience, with customers able to order their goods from home and have purchased items ready for a seamless pick up on arrival – with some stores going that extra mile and even packing orders into customer vehicles.

Those retailers that have acted quickly aren’t building these types of apps from scratch – there’s a simpler and more cost-effective way, without sacrificing quality. This may be by “white labelling” a semi-custom cloud-based app solution, capitalising on the existing framework and functionality that’s required.

Centralised networks with AI smarts

Most major retailers today have an overarching cloud-based technology system in place, offering network connectivity for staff and customers.

When it’s a centralised network that connects and manages add-on apps and technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) overlays really prove their worth.

AI is allowing retailers to drill deeper into shopper habits and uncover insights for immediate action. For instance, most retailers are already using security cameras. By connecting that feed into a cloud-based video analytics system, it can reveal how often and in what aisles the 1.5-metre social distancing rule is being broken.

The retailer can adjust its visual merchandising around the store and alter in-store customer limits, making smart changes based on the data, until resolved. This is a low-cost way of putting existing installed technology to work, CCTV and WiFi help map customer movement and flow and then the AI machine creates a data stream and analyses in real time then delivers it to you for swift action.

That’s just one example of how AI can help a retailer operate smarter and react to changing circumstances with pace. More broadly, AI overlays on existing systems can uncover insights and trends, which may lead to more effective roster management, stock volumes and even relevant deals or promotions.

Physically remote but digitally near

There’s been a lot of focus on the customers and staff at the frontline of retail, but back of house staff have also been greatly impacted. They’ve needed full real-time visibility into stores in order to make important operational changes rapidly. Typically, administration tasks required elevated privileges and enabling this for remote workers, while ensuring security and safety, can prove challenging.

Major decision making requires access to information and therefore setting up retail teams’ access to the business network from personal homes, securely, has been crucial. Leading retailers have worked hand in hand with their IT partners, arranging for their cloud-based networks to be securely extended into homes, through remote access points.

IT partners have also had a critical role to play in ensuring constant network uptime. There’s no good time for critical applications to go down, but imagine if your Point of Sale (POS) was down for a couple of hours amid panic-buying trends, while you had a queue of customers waiting to enter?

Remote IT management has shown its golden value – playing a crucial role in allowing IT departments to laser in on potential issues and remedy them before they cause problems, and all without having to step foot into stores.

This pandemic has stress-tested retailers’ prior investments in many ways. It’s those retailers that have built upon and maximised their existing systems and technologies, that are coming out on top. They’ve had an overarching approach – considering their customers, frontline and back-of-house staff. By maximising every angle and bringing everything together into a centralised solution, you take your technology investments to the next level. After all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Pat Devlin, director, South Pacific (ANZ), Aruba, a HPE company.

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