Revitalising Retail in a post-COVID world

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Written by
Sean Taylor

Head of Retail Solutions UK at Panasonic Business

It could have been worse. As Europe emerges from the pandemic lockdown early signs for the retail industry are that, initially at least, the recovery looks more V-shaped than U-shaped.

Latest results show that in June, total retail trade in the EU returned to pre-lockdown levels of February 2020, according to eurostat. Total retail trade rose 5.2% month-on-month in June, on top of a trade jump of 16.4% in May.

The biggest June bounce backs in total retail trade volumes were registered in Ireland (+21.9%), Spain (+16.5%) and Italy (+13.8%). Small decreases were observed in Austria (-2.5%) and Germany (-1.6%) but these followed large recoveries in those countries in May

However, there can be no doubt that the recovery is fragile. The threat of a second wave of coronavirus cases in the Autumn hangs over the continent like a gloomy cloud. The European Commission’s forecasting of a deeper recession than initially predicted – with the EU economy to contract by 8.7% in 2020 – threatens to also knock consumer and business confidence if it becomes reality.

So what can retailers do to continue to revitalise retail in the post-COVID world? As bricks and mortar retailers crossed the threshold into January 2020, they already faced a series of challenges as a result of changing consumer habits. In particular, the trend towards buying online from a small number of global ecommerce giants. The impact of the pandemic appears only to have accelerated those changes.

Total online spending in the US rose to $82.7 billion in May – up 77% year-on-year, according to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index. Adobe told Forbes that the impact of COVID-19 had massively accelerated ecommerce growth by as much as 4-6 years. A similar theme is anticipated in Europe with Internet Retailing reporting a study showing that the share of consumers that do more than half of their total purchases online has increased between 25 and 80 percent since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Customer reassurance to visit

If high street retailers are to fight back then their own adoption and deployment of technology looks certain to be the most effective weapon. The first challenge post-pandemic must be to reassure shoppers about the safety and security of visiting stores once more.

We have already seen stores implement measures including limits on the number of customers in-store, social distancing markers, one-way systems and screens around cashiers. In addition, new staff roles have been required to monitor the numbers entering stores, advising on cleaning techniques for baskets and trolleys and maintaining social distancing. As these precautions look set to remain for the foreseeable future, technology has an important role to play in automating many of these new precautions, allowing staff to get back to their core role of delighting their customers.

For example, customer analytics and displays can be deployed as counting solutions to automatically notify customers in queues outside stores when they are allowed to enter. These common technology solutions can be rapidly modified to provide reassurance to customers and reduce the burden on staff at the door.

Some innovative property groups have already begun to use technology to address the issue. For example, by using footfall analysis software to provide consumers with real-time information about how crowded shopping centres are. These types of capacity management solution can help to reassure customers, potentially encouraging more consumers to return to stores, and support efforts to ensure social distancing requirements are met.

Driving footfall

Once shoppers are comfortable returning, the battle will be on to capture their attention. A Future Stores Research Report, conducted just before the pandemic, reported that 38% of retailers believe that providing continual evolution of the store concept will enable them to achieve a must-visit destination status. They believed stores would need to become more flexible and constantly evolve to meet customer expectations and to compete with other high street brands and leisure attractions in the local area. The message is probably truer today than ever before. In addition, 33% said providing in-store experiences would be important, 20% suggested exclusive in-store products and services and 9% supported in-store events.

Engaging customers in-store

Once in-store, optimising the customer experience will be critical to providing a rewarding visit for the shopper and a commercially beneficial visit for the store. Alongside security, camera and facial recognition technologicy can be used to provide detailed demographic data to help more deeply understand shopper profiles. This can be used to drive personalised digital marketing to attract the interest and tailor offers to individual customers in store.

Imagine a completely hands free and personalised experience. As you walk into a store your smart phone app or retail facial recognition technology notifies staff of your arrival and provides them with a summary of your brand and shopping preferences. They can greet you by name, walk you straight through to the VIP area and your personal shopper experience can begin. As you leave, all your items are collected and packaged and you can pay by simply smiling at the camera at the sales desk as you exit, leaving biometric and payment solutions to do the rest and electronically send you your receipt. The assurance and commercial benefits that this type of shopping experience could provide in the new normal is not something to be underestimated.

Importance of automation

In-store automation was also considered an important investment area for retailers ahead of the pandemic and remains so now, as they look to re-engage with customers. In the Future Stores Research 96% of respondents said they will or were planning to invest in automating elements of shopper engagement and 92% were looking to invest in data analytics – to gain greater insight into all areas of store operations and the customer journey. Intelligent data analytics can assist in a number of areas such as providing demographic information and dwell time, as well as actionable insight to help optimise utilisation of floor space and improve operation efficiency.

Lastly, 95% of retailers said they were specifically looking to invest in Electronic Shelf Labels in the next two years. Stock monitoring solutions help to avoid empty shelves – which can annoy and worry shoppers, and mean lost sales. Both they and electric shelf labels (ESLs) automate tasks and free up staff to engage more with customers. In addition, ESLs have other potential communication benefits for retailers. For example, they can be used to direct customers to specific online product information or vital allergy information about ingredients via QR codes. They can also be used to interact digitally with customers and deliver customisable and relevant messages, such as social distancing reminders.

Many retailers will still be considering how they evolve and re-engage their customer to revitalise retail over the coming months but there is no doubt that technology will have a fundamental role to play.

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