The Flip Side: How COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of technology in retail

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Sandeep Kumar
Sandeep Kumar
A multimedia journalist with over eleven years of experience in print and digital media, Sandeep Kumar is assistant editor with Images Group. Books, retail, sports and cinema are an inextricable part of his life.

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the global business environment and the crisis is estimated to hit the world economy beyond any analyst’s imagination. UN anticipates that the crisis will result in a $1 trillion hit to the global economy in the current financial cycle.
Without minimising the devastating impact of COVID-19, one cannot ignore the sight of business opportunities both on digital and technology front which are emerging right in its wake.The pandemic has forced the retail industry to embrace technology. It has literally drawn every brand out of the comfort zone and has forced them to adopt technology in their business structure, in each department.
Technology was never a problem for big retail players, but a major portion of the Indian retail industry is run by local brands and retailers who have been working with the most basic of tech know how up until now. The pandemic and the mandatory lockdown have changed all that. Today, even the smallest of retailers are blending technology into their formats. And it’s not just retailers who are benefitting. For consumers too, technology and digitalisation have been a boon in these tough times.
The pandemic has finally broken the shackles of the ‘Online Vs Offline’ debate and have inculcated online and digital platform for all their needs. People have turned to e-commerce for basic shopping including grocery and household appliances since they have been forced to stay at home due to fear of the contagion. COVID-19 has changed the status and structure of the retail currently and will also play a huge role in deciding and shaping the future of the business.
While sales have been nothing short of a bad dream over the last five months, the industry is finding new ways and innovative platforms to connect with the consumer. In order to satisfy the consumer’s craving to shop, retailers are investing in technology to provide a safe shopping environment as well as to promote social distancing. It’s a change, a step towards how retail businesses will be conducted in the future as well. Many brands are already engaging their customer base on various online and social media platforms, which is helping them gain lost ground while building a new sales avenue for the future.
A Makeover For Retailers
Krishna Jha, a digital strategy consulting expert, suggests some quick changes which retailers need to adopt and going by the current situation, technology is helping them to achieve it.
A Digital Brand Identity: If you are brand owner or even a retailer (however small), get your business a basic digital brand identities like website, email address and social media handles like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube etc. (choice of the channel has to be totally based on what business segment one operates in).
Create a Digital Catalogue: Build a catalogue of products on your website and in various electronics format including one that could be easily be shared through channels like WhatsApp etc. (again execution of this totally depends on the basic category and scale of business).
Enable Online Ordering: Get your own e-commerce engine in place or list yourself on a marketplace such as Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa, Zomato or Swiggy (strategy for going with owned channel or through marketplace or both will totally depend on business type, scale etc.). There are plenty of cost effective solutions available these days.
Build a Customer Database: Data is not just the fuel for a business, it has the power to change businesses – big or small – fundamentally. Knowing your customers, their likes/dislikes, their behaviour is essential – this is the single most important technology-led transformation all retailers must adopt. Those with a fewer resources can work with cloud-based solutions (of which there are plenty) that can help them to do this more cost-effectively.
Create a Customer Engagement Program: Once you know your customer, building affinity and in turn, loyalty is one of the most important factors that could help you grow your franchise. Given that you are armed with your customer database and behavioural insights, engagement becomes an easy exercise, provided you follow discipline and rigour. Focus on the utility of the customer than that of yours, it will help you build a bond which will go beyond business helping the brand to earn customers for a lifetime.
Leverage Your Offline Presence: Leverage the phygital (physical + digital model) in the longer run, give your customer the comfort of your offline association while offering them complete convenience enabled by technology to order and engage online
Remain in Beta Mode: The ever-changing technology scenario necessitates you to keep an eye on what is happening now in the world of consumers. And, make changes to your business in compliance.
“With the adoption of technology – a business must plan to go phygital (physical + digital) – all offline retailers must have an online presence either through owned or through marketplace channels, and as the industry evolves, mostly all online players would need to have extension in offline world,” he said.
Transformational Technologies
Global marketing research firms have ubiquitously called the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic an unexpected catalyst for tech adoption’ in the retail industry. While the retail industry’s increasing reliance on technology over the past few years goes unsaid, the challenges posed by the pandemic will invariably accelerate the rate of adoption of new technology and tools.
Even after lockdown restrictions are eased, convenience along with safety and hygiene regulations like social distancing, contactless shopping, etc., will necessitate a new approach and retailers will have no option than to rely on technologies for frictionless services and experiential shopping experiences.
SHOPPING APPS: Apps find a mention in this category, as they are ubiquitous and can prove to be the easiest way for retailers in offering shopping experiences. Post-pandemic apps are going to pay a big role in retail. People today prefer smarter, quicker shopping, which can be done online.
Apps like Ubamarket are revolutionizing the way people are buying during the pandemic. Apart from unique features like pre-made shopping lists, in-store satnav and cashier-less checkout, the app also helps the consumer in checking stock levels from home, as well as check length of queues in a particular store. Apps can also be used to geo-target consumers and present them with more accurate and relevant advertisements and offers.
Shopping mall apps are very helpful in organising the entire shopping process for customers, letting them easily select products from different stores and generally making the process faster, safer, and seamless.
While apps were something only bigger malls in Tier I and Metros were in investing in pre-pandemic, the onset of COVID changed everything. Today, malls in Tier II, III & IV cities are seriously working towards introducing apps, spurred in part by the penetration of the smartphone and the internet into the country’s hinterland.
JUST WALK OUT: Amazon launched its latest technology ‘Just Walk Out’ much in the veins of Amazon Go cashierless convenience stores. Featuring an amalgamation of modern technologies like cameras, sensors, computer vision techniques and deep learning, the proprietary allows retailers to automate operations including purchase, check out and payment. The concept lets consumers avail checkout-free shopping without the involvement of amazon accounts. The e-commerce behemoth has also launched a website outline the modus operandi of the technology and FAQs.
SMART BUILDING SOLUTIONS: Although this technology is yet to pick up in India, Smart Building Technology holds tomorrow’s key to energy efficiency, cost reduction, optimization and productivity. The technology banks on IoT to share information between connected systems to optimize performance as well as automate processes.
Apart from that, it holds immense benefits for retail- right from tracking and monitoring assets for efficiency, generating heat maps of footfalls, information on shopping habits to determine the optimal sales strategies for the best same-store-sales metrics to theft security. Connected systems ensure that store manager has access to all this information in a single location.
PRODUCT DATA MANAGEMENT: While data has become a fundamental part of e-commerce, managing this data and utilizing it to one’s benefit is progressively getting harder. Integrated online and offline trading system and multi-language, Omnichannel environments and multi-store setups all have exceptionally complex information management needs.
Product Data Management assures data integrity in all these environments and systems through a unified virtual location for data storage and management to yield enhanced data quality and accuracy, which in turn can boost purchase decision. A well-aligned PDM system helps in better visibility, enhanced the consumer shopping experience, and empowers staff and boots productivity as well as sales.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI): AI has been a boon for the retail industry, and it holds the answer to the post-COVID-19 future. AI has immense applications within retail and promises to empower both brands and retailers to transform themselves, make informed decisions and drive profitability. It can aid the entire retail value-chain to gain efficiency and improve agility at every stage of operations, including supply chain, marketing, sales and customer outreach. It also holds the answer to one of the most important issues in the retail industry during the COVID- clearing inventory. In fact, AI can also assist retailers in complying to new safety and hygiene norms in stores post COVID.
Recently, a New Delhi based AI-driven computer vision SaaS venture called Wobot Intelligence has developed a unique full suite, plug-and-play, hygiene tracking solution that can be plugged into existing cameras to ensure an organisation’s hygiene compliance.
BIG DATA & ANALYTICS: Simply put, Big Data drives towards a better customer experience. The customer experience is more important than ever as retailers struggle to differentiate themselves in an increasingly challenging market. But how retailers implement that customer-experience is shifting from a purely person-to-person approach to something much more automated – but when done right, those automation tools supplement and enhance the human approach, delivering a vastly superior, and much more personal, customer experience.
For retail, the analytics and data upside is in demand forecasting and supply chain planning. In addition, better inventory visibility through a combination of data and systems as well as sensors to monitor in-stock/out-of-stock (on shelf, in the warehouse, in transit) will continue to enable flexible transformation.
BLOCKCHAIN: Blockchain makes retailers more efficient. While most people associate Blockchain with crypto-currencies and Bitcoin, its greater potential is in back-end applications that improve retail operations. The Blockchain framework allows all members of the value chain – supplier, manufacturer, retailer, consumer – to have visibility into products from source through production to store to consumer. Consumer goods can be certified with Blockchain’s anti-counterfeiting solution (Block Verify) for pharma, luxury, and electronics. Many companies today are also using solutions to move product warranty information into the cloud via Blockchain. This allows the warranty to be easily updated and transferrable.
Contactless Entry: In a post-COVID world, contactless entry systems will be standard practice. Equipped with temperature screening and mask detection features, these systems will enable retailers to protect their staff, minimize human intervention and assure their customers about the in-store safety protocols. It is expected that customers will remain sceptical about visiting physical stores for the foreseeable future, and only retail outlets with a contactless entry mechanism in place will manage to regain their foot fall.
Virtual Store Walkthroughs: With social distancing becoming mandatory for months to come, advanced technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will allow retail businesses to provide their customers with an in-store experience, through apps at homes. For example, virtual store walkthroughs let buyers enjoy a no-contact, hassle-free shopping experience through their smartphone apps without having to be physically present at the store. Similarly, virtual trials enable customers to try out apparels and accessories virtually, there eliminating any risk of COVID transmission.
Self-Service Kiosks at Checkout Points: While self-service kiosks do not qualify as a novel solution, they are likely to play a crucial role in the retail environment to minimize human-to-human interactions. Automated self-service kiosks can also offer customers detailed information regarding the product catalogue, promotional announcements (discounts and special offers), and the payments and checkout procedure. Deployment of this technology further enables optimization of the in-store space, reduces the number of employees on the floor at any given time, and enhances the overall customer experience.
Digital Payments for a Contactless Experience: As suggested by a growing body of research, currency notes can be a carrier of coronavirus. The government and banks have also started promoting the use of digital methods of payment in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Most online retail platforms have already put a ban on COD (cash-on-delivery) to facilitate a contact-free delivery experience, and it is important that offline retailers also ask their customers to use only digital payments for making payments. This will not only limit physical contact but will also enable a faster checkout procedure. Apart from the technologies mentioned above, there are several areas where technology can be deployed to ensure seamless operations of retail. While India’s retail industry may take months and even years to recover to its pre-COVID levels, technology will undoubtedly help retailers get back on their feet and acquire their lost customer base.

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