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Covid-19: How retailers are using technology to respond to changing shopping habits

As the coronavirus outbreak accelerates the shift in consumer behaviour, how are retailers using technology to keep customers engaged?

Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives, Eat Out to Help Out, Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Rule of Six, Local Lockdown, Tier 1, 2 or 3, Circuit Breaker.

The mixed messages throughout the entire pandemic provides enough content for Twitter anecdotes and shareable memes to last us a lifetime. But this dance of the Hokey Cokey is having a detrimental effect on consumers.

Whether it’s affecting their confidence to spend as we face an uncertain economic future, living in areas under increased lockdown measures, or just simply planning to stay at home to ride out the storm, shopper’s habits have changed – potentially forever.

Retail was already in the midst of significant change following a lack of footfall before the pandemic struck, with the phrase “the death of the high street” being regularly used to describe towns with shuttered stores up and down country.

But the industry’s suffering went from bad to worse when the government enforced the closure of non-essential stores during the height of lockdown earlier this year.

While essential stores, including grocers and DIY shops, are capitalising on heightened consumer demand, the majority of retailers – especially fashion – struggled, with a number of brands already falling into administration.

“As your lifestyle changes due to Covid-19, so do your needs and wishes. In consequence, some categories have faired well and others have not,” says shopper insight expert, Iona Carter, founder of Tracer Insight Consultancy, pointing to the exponential increase in demand for electronics and outdoor clothing, camping gear and fire pits during lockdown.

And while non-essential stores are now allowed to trade again, people aren’t rushing to go back to their old ways of shopping when they realise they can buy the majority of their goods online.

Technology to save the day

Retailers are already acting on these changing consumer habits and are either adapting their business models or implementing technology to help customers feel more at ease when shopping and to encourage shoppers back into store.

“Touchless is, of course, a big thing,” says Carter, who points to Lush’s ‘Lush Lens’ app, which allows shoppers to scan products in store to for further information and to know the price without having to pick up the item. A similar example is Coca-Cola’s touchless vending machine which uses QR codes to allow customers to ‘mobile pour’ themselves a drink.

Andy Halliwell, senior director and retail analyst at consultancy firm Publicis Sapient, agrees that safety has been a key driver of new technology implementations over the past six months.

Problem area

Queuing has been one problem area retailers have been looking to solve, with technology solutions to manage customer numbers being used by the likes of Pandora. Meanwhile, ways to alleviate the burden of queueing for shoppers altogether – such as appointment booking solutions – is currently being consider by Ikea.

“There’s a lot of ‘hygiene anxiety’ and retailers are looking to solve basic problems: how do you help consumers get in and out as quick as possible?” says Halliwell.

“But retailers also want to make shopping feel like a great experience, they’re thinking, ‘How do we make them happy that they came and shopped with us and had a good experience, and not just a safe experience?’”

Halliwell says that his retail clients are trying to figure out how to “bring the online shopping experience to the high street”, adding that while the industry has been talking about the “omnichannel shopping experience” for many years, the number of retailers that have the necessary technology to create a seamless customer experience from online to in-store is surprisingly low.

Since lockdown, Halliwell says he’s seen retailers call out for endless aisle, as well as click and collect, solutions to ensure retailers can engage shoppers however they wish to shop with them.

Halliwell adds that one retailer is in the early stages of bringing a customer’s online shopping list to life by ensuring that the clothes on their wish list were waiting for the customer in the changing room in the correct size when they choose to visit the store.

Engaging online shoppers

But some customers are still not going to be comfortable visiting a store. Many customers now find online shopping simply more convenient, and many will face barriers to in-store shopping as they are put into further lockdowns in attempts to curb infection rates across the country. Whatever the reason, e-commerce is seeing a boom.

In April, May and June, online sales grew by more than 100%, dipping slightly to 81% growth in July and 72% in August, according to the BDO High Street Sales Tracker. In addition, 42% of consumers surveyed during lockdown said they would shop online more frequently when restrictions ended, according to ChannelAdvisor and Dynata.

Specifically in fashion, high-street sales have plummeted and we’ve already waved goodbye to the likes of Oasis when administrators failed to find a buyer in April. But online fashion players have pivoted to new consumer trends, with Asos’s tactic of quickly switching from party dresses to athleisure helping the e-tailer achieve a pre-tax profit increase of 329%.

With Christmas around the corner, retailers will be hoping to drive as many sales as possible during the so-called ‘golden quarter’, Halliwell says any technology that helps “drive confidence in the purchases consumers are making online” should be a priority for retailers.

He points to technologies that allow shoppers to virtually try on clothes from the comfort of their homes, including a solution from Israeli start-up Zeekit which is currently being trialled by Asos in a bid to reduce its returns rates.

“There’s a variety of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which can scan pictures of you so it can map the clothes onto you, allowing you to see what they would look like,” says Halliwell.

Retailers are not just offering this technology to help consumers imagine themselves in the clothes, but it also helps the retailer create digital photoshoots by virtually dressing the models to get around social distancing restrictions and remove studio costs.

Halliwell explains that this technology has to make the virtual image look realistic, which has been difficult in the past. Before offering its services to retailers, Zeekit worked on top-secret military-grade landscape mapping projects, and has now found a different way of using the technology.

Video shopping

Another key investment area has been in remote shopping assistants, which Halliwell believes is going to be a huge market in the next few years, having seen the viral trend for shopping influencers use video technology to connect with mobile shoppers in China.

Using video – which the pandemic normalised for many of us during lockdown – to connect customers at home with experts in store allows them to have 1:1 conversations and ask questions about products. This gives customers the confidence that they are buying the right thing online.

Video-based technology supplier Go Instore has seen an 800% increase in demand for its technology since lockdown, with the likes of Mamas & Papas, Currys PC World, Brompton Bicycles, Sofology and Ernest Jones all using video to engage with online shoppers.

Go Instore approached Samsung about using its solution last year, but at the time it wasn’t a high priority. Enter 2020, and Samsung’s online director of UK and Ireland, Nick White, has rolled out Samsung Live Video Chat to help remote working consumers make these “considered purchases”. He believes that, as the manufacturer, Samsung should be the expert and available to answer consumer questions and add value.

A retailer’s digital checklist for a post-Covid world

  • Click and collect to give customers more delivery options and to encourage in-store spend on pick up.
  • Endless aisle to give in-store customers visibility of all available products from the online catalogue.
  • Remote shopping assistants using video technology engage online customers.
  • Appointment booking to alleviate bottlenecks at busy periods in store.
  • Digital wish lists which can be accessed in store.
  • Virtual try on of clothing to prevent online returns.
  • In-queue engagement and virtual queuing to prevent long queues to enter stores.
  • Mobile point-of-sale payments to alleviate in-store checkout queues.
  • Inventory accuracy to allow online shoppers access to in-store stock and in-store customers access to online stock.

The Perfume Shop, on the other hand, began using this video technology to link customers with staff expertise prior to lockdown. But during the pandemic the retailer connected shoppers with perfume experts who can walk customers through their store shelves and advise them on perfume notes.

Computer Weekly tried out the technology with an employee of The Perfume Shop who said the video technology allowed her to reassure customers of in-store Covid-19 precautions by showing them the safety measures.

Cathy Newman, marketing and customer experience director at The Perfume Shop, described a 45% growth in month-on-month sales during lockdown.

“Lockdown restrictions prevented customers from going in store and trying out a new scent,” she says. “The next best thing was having one of our seasoned experts explain the unique aspect of each perfume our customers had questions about, virtually.

“Although we were utilising Go Instore before, the pandemic has definitely accelerated our investment into leveraging innovative retail technology and established our position as a leader in online perfume shopping.”

Zeeshan Ghalib, chief technology officer of Go Instore, says some of the supplier’s retail partners are seeing conversion rates of up to 30% after installing the video solution.

“By adding face-to-face, real-time expert help to online shopping, retailers empower customers within their purchasing journeys, ease their minds and instil confidence on big purchasing decisions, while adhering to government guidelines and keeping consumers safe and comfortable,” he says.

Publicis Sapient’s Halliwell can see this type of technology taking off as retailers are forced to reduce their store footprint in the coming years. Instead, he can see more ‘dark stores’ emerge, where retailers use digital technologies to bring customers into a store virtually. He especially sees luxury and premium gifting retailers benefiting from the extra confidence video connectivity drives.

Whether the future of the store looks dark or light, what is clear is that technology will play a major factor in which retailers are able to survive the pandemic. Retailers must watch their shoppers carefully and react to their changes – however small – to stay afloat in a post-Covid world.

Read more about retail technology

  • Ocado has acquired two US firms to boost its robotics expertise, while Walmart has reverted to using staff for shelf inventory checks.
  • Amazon is investing in autonomous robot delivery in the UK, adding to pioneering work undertaken by Co-op and Starship Technologies.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

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