In recent years, retailers have had to adjust to rapidly changing conditions. With the maturation of online shopping habits, the high street has been forced to revise its approach to customer experience. Although only in the early stages, brick and mortar stores had begun to rediscover their purpose in the retail landscape, fuelled by the increasing adoption of new technologies, recorded worldwide at +20% CAGR.

The arrival of COVID-19 changed all of this. Stringent lockdown regulations brought almost all physical retail to a standstill and the ongoing situation means that even as shops reopen social distancing measures will greatly impact how they do so.

Some retailers, economists and consumers have argued that the pandemic may mark the end of brick and mortar stores and by extension the need for smart technology in retail. Retailers would be wise to disagree.  With such a high level of commitment to high street premises in retailers’ business models and no clear end to social distancing in sight, to the contrary, technology solutions will offer an antidote to this industry dilemma – from stockroom to store-front.

Managing resources and logistics

Supply chain management needs an overhaul to become more flexible. Many retailers were beginning to embark on the right path before the lockdown, but now accelerated adoption of smarter systems will be a crucial factor in minimising costs to mitigate against unpredictable demand and revenues.

The availability of supplies is now unpredictable since social distancing conditions made supply chain disruptions harder to rectify. Retailers need faster and more accurate tracking and recording to optimise stock management and cost-control.

Starting with stock, GPS tracking and RFID (radio-frequency identification) technologies use live-tracking to optimise supply chain and inventory management. Used in conjunction with analytics capabilities, these technologies allow retailers to automate precise stock management thus simplifying the task of adjusting stock to better cope with unpredictable demand.

With reopening on the horizon, retailers should remain prepared for closure at short notice. To help, even energy controls can be optimised for cost-efficiency savings on outgoings and resources. Whether humans activate the sensor controls or IoT devices operate storage conditions to reduce spoiling of products, using automated smart sensors electricals and lighting will only operate when they are needed.

Taking an analytical approach, AI and data will empower retailers to identify potential excess before it becomes a burden on profitability. Despite continuing demand volatility and the influence of fewer purchases per capita, as suggested by Deloitte, AI algorithms eliminate the potential for wastage, unsold stock and irrational last-minute stock adjustments.

Social distancing in a digital age

Privacy concerns, particularly following the introduction of GDPR, have slowed adoption of shopper behaviour diagnostics in retail. Now that these practices are becoming necessary for retailers to responsibly monitor social distancing, retailers should consider those solutions which obfuscate their customers’ identities, even at the edge level.

Using computer vision in cameras or LiDAR light detection sensors, retailers can measure footfall, crowding and movement around the store to control the spread of infection. Simple measures like more accurate and automated people counting can make the difference to delivering on safety, whereas more high-tech analytics such as temperature sensors can potentially detect early infections. These tokenising strategies retain shopper anonymity, which will empower retailers to harness valuable data insights to inform stock, merchandising and innovation spend once lockdown measures ease.

Meanwhile, as UK retail spaces begin to consider reopening, they will need solutions to sterilise wide-area premises, and technology can assist here too. UV robotics devices will be used to perform and measure sanitation levels to ensure standards are met, in critical areas automated RFID soap dispensers will help employees maintain safe personal hygiene practices and non-contact accesses controls using voice or NFC will limit secondary contact.

Similarly, creative application of biometrics will benefit the customer experience, and bring back the recreational element to shopping, or indeed window shopping. Touchscreens will go touchless, leveraging vocal input and Natural Language Processing instead. User-centric engagement technologies such as smart mirrors which reduce fitting room congestion and encourage product interaction. AI capabilities open up a host of possibilities for retailers to promote safety and enhance the retail experience.

Introducing the new normal

Even with the right systems in place retailers will undoubtedly need to adjust to decreased levels of footfall in the physical store beyond the current lockdown phase. This is where there needs to be a change of mindset.

Retail spaces may need to be redesigned entirely and rebuilt around technologies that inform new, safer processes such as one-on-one-off display items. Retailers should look to the market for assistance with integrating appropriate systems which align with existing processes. Taking advantage of proof-of-concept trials is a simple process that helps demonstrate ROI and fine-tunes solutions before full implementation.

The sharp rise in online shopping is inevitable but this will have other long-term effects which further merge online and offline worlds. For example, Click-and-Collect services and showroom experiences where customers view in-store and order online are on the rise. Stock management systems need to reflect these changes and work in harmony between stores and warehouses through adoption of analytics and automation.

AI technology, cloud services and automation will power the retail industry for years to come, and will propel it into its next chapter. Retailers who are ready to take steps to protect their business from social distancing risks should look to digital transformation programmes that meet their specific needs. Turning this from potential into reality will require businesses to innovate within their supply chains, appoint smart safety practices and embrace complex data to navigate the new parameters for in-store experiences.