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How retailers are using tech to cope with changing footfall

Customer behaviour was shifting long before the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the online shopping boom, so what technology are retailers using to keep stores relevant?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How retailers are using technology to survive

The death of the UK’s high street as we know it has been spoken about as an inevitability for some time, with experts claiming some stores will survive, but not as we know them – shifting towards experiential locations rather than solely places to make purchases.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this shift, solidifying the death of the high street in the minds of many.

But there are ways retailers can keep stores relevant in these uncertain and increasingly digital times, whether that’s through click-and-collect services or by serving as a localised warehouse.

Sarah Curran Usher, managing director of data-driven personalisation platform True Fit, who in 2018 was part of a Retail Executives Advisory Network aimed at high street transformation, says: “I’ve always believed in the purpose of the high street, and the in-store experience is still super important for the customer and the brands.”

Stay safe, control the virus

While people slowly regain confidence in physical shopping, much of the technology introduced to encourage people back into physical locations involves making them feel safe.

Many restaurants have begun introducing digital menus to prevent people from having to touch something other customers have handled. Restaurant chain The Breakfast Club, for example, is using QR codes on its tables which automatically direct customers to its menu online.

And, in an effort to reduce packaging, both for environmental reasons and to reduce the surfaces coronavirus can spread on, cosmetics retailer Lush has introduced an app called Lush Lens, which allows customers to scan products for further details without having to touch products to read the packaging.

Curran Usher says True Fit is currently in talks with some European retailers to use its technology to help in-store shoppers find the right clothing fit while changing rooms are closed, something clothing brand Moosejaw is already doing in the US.

Store personnel armed with tablets can scan a garment’s QR code and, by asking the customer a few questions about their body shape, can determine which size will be the best fit for them, particularly if they have used True Fit previously.

This not only meets customers’ increasing demand for a personalised experience, but also helps with the “additional logistical and operational issues around a customer trying on a garment and what has to happen to that item once it’s been tried on”.

“Tech and the shift to digital has played a huge role in how retailers have maintained business as usual where possible”
Miya Knights, Eagle Eye

“Where we are with regards to Covid isn’t a great situation for anyone. We need to try, as businesses, to find a way we can still run our shops, keep staff employed, all of these essential things,” says Curran Usher. “Now is the time to broaden the way we think about technology and how we can apply it to solve a lot of these problems.”

Monitoring the number of people in stores has also been a focus of late, with two-metre distancing in place.

EE has been using a virtual queueing technology called GreetMe to allow customers to book appointments for store visits to prevent too many people being in a store at once, making it easier to follow social distancing guidelines, and it certainly isn’t the only retailer to do so.

Miya Knights, head of industry insights at Eagle Eye, also highlights technologies such as the “traffic light admission systems” some retailers are using to count customers in and out of stores to ensure there is a safe number of people in a space at any one time.

She also notes the increase in contactless payments and self-scan capabilities on phones, with retailers, in many cases, also asking consumers not to pay with cash.

Rolling all of this into one, Knights highlights the Sainsbury’s SmartShop app. Introduced last year as a scan-as-you-shop offering, it has now added features such as a traffic light system based on store footfall.  

She says some stores in Singapore, such as Frasers Property, are even using UV robots to disinfect stores and items.  

“I’ve not seen as much activity around incentivising customers to return to stores as there has been in keeping them safe when they’re there,” says Knights.

“Tech and the shift to digital has played a huge role in how retailers have maintained business as usual where possible, primarily by increasing safety precautions in line with government guidance.”

Teaching staff to adapt

The unexpected coronavirus pandemic has led to a number of extremes in the retail space, including bulk buying, forced closures and a huge shift to online shopping.

When the pandemic hit, some retailers were forced to bring in new staff as a result of increased demand, especially in the online space.

When it comes to high street retailers, there might have been changes to shift patterns or procedures to comply with new regulations, alongside shifting customer behaviour.

In some cases, staff may even have had to learn how to use new technologies, such as appointment booking systems.

Laurent Homeyer, industry advisor for retail and hospitality at Workday, says there has been a trend in retailers using its technology to retrain people, including 7-Eleven stores in Australia, as well as to communicate changes to processes throughout the business.

“One of the great challenges when the pandemic hit Europe was to reach out to every employee, because they had to reorganise overnight,” he says.

Pointing out that some retailers had to retrain people who might previously have been mainly stacking shelves to instead prepare click-and-collect or home delivery orders, Homeyer also says many retailers have hired during the pandemic and have had to take on new employees.

“In the store, people were spending more time preparing click-and-collect or kerbside orders than reshelving in some areas,” he says. “It was the case for OcadoTesco and John Lewis/Waitrose, so they had to take on more staff.”

What customers want

In essence, trying to force customers to visit a physical store when they’d rather shop online isn’t going to work – instead, retailers should focus on using technology to be flexible and offer customers the service they want through the channel they’re most comfortable with.

But while there has been a huge shift to online shopping in pandemic times, people are still visiting stores – their behaviour is just different when they shop.

“We’ve seen consumers shopping with far more purpose,” says Andy Sumpter, retail consultant at ShopperTrak. “They’re shopping less regularly, and when they’re shopping they’re less likely to browse.”

Customers want convenience, and now the pandemic has people on edge about interacting with others – they don’t want to be hanging around for too long.

While shoppers are visiting stores less frequently, their basket size and value is likely to be higher when they do visit. Sumpter says there has been a decrease in weekend shopper traffic, but an increase in weekday shopping.

He says ShopperTrak has seen increased investment in technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID) to make serving customers more efficient.

When people are making a purposeful visit to a store, you don’t want them to find stock isn’t available, says Sumpter, and knowing where each individual item is allows retailers to get rid of some of the more time-consuming tasks, making inventory control a lot easier.

“We’ve seen consumers shopping with far more purpose. They’re shopping less regularly, and when they’re shopping they’re less likely to browse”
Andy Sumpter, ShopperTrak

As put by Callum Campbell, CEO of Linnworks, “it’s all about lower and lower effort for the consumer”, so retailers have to figure out how to engage with customers “wherever they want to shop”.

Retailer success has always hinged on the whim of the customer, and retailers adopting technology to placate consumers is something the pandemic has only accelerated.

With stores closing en masse, it’s more important than ever to be where the customers are, making omni-channel retail even more relevant.

While there has indeed been an increase in online shopping, Nick Brackenbury, co-founder and CEO of NearSt, says in some cases this might simply be customer research for a more “mission-led” journey as online searches do not always equate to online purchases.

In many cases, he says, people are checking their local stores have the products they want before venturing out to make a purchase.

“These were people making sure the thing they wanted in their local supermarket or convenience store, or whatever it might be, was definitely there before going, and then going in and getting out,” he says.

So online presence is becoming more important, even if just to keep the store relevant, but having this narrow view of stock can have “complexity on the back end for retailers”.

Local and convenient

Speaking of retailers that have been successful in the pandemic, Brackenbury says the sectors that have done really well are “those that are convenience-based”.

Stores where there’s a “key service element”, such as DIY stores, are also doing well, he says, with people doing some online research first, then turning up and asking for assistance.

“What I think has also happened in the pandemic is there’s been this shift towards localism, where people have also realised the practicality of sourcing things locally,” says Brackenbury.

McColl’s, a convenience-based retailer with around 1,400 “neighbourhood stores” in the UK, implemented many technologies in light of the pandemic. Some of these were in the pipeline before the pandemic, admits Josh Jewell, store systems manager for McColl’s Retail Group, but were then implemented at breakneck speed during the coronavirus outbreak.

McColl’s worked with Tillo and Edenred to implement the government’s Free School Meals programme, whereby eligible families were sent an e-voucher which could be used to pay for goods during lockdown, with the amount spent deducted from the customer’s balance.

McColl’s reinstated a redundant gift card scheme to keep track of how much of their allocation customers had spent, adapting its Oracle point of sale (POS) system to allow outstanding balances to be checked. In the first week, the retailer issued 2,500 gift cards.

Jewell says it initially thought customers would choose bigger retailers for the scheme, but due to shifting consumer behaviour as a result of the outbreak, people are shopping locally.

“Having it out in 1,400 stores in less than two weeks was a huge achievement,” says Jewell. “Something that would have taken months before, we just had to get it done as soon as possible.”

McColl’s also began offering Deliveroo deliveries, with orders coming into local stores via a Deliveroo-provided tablet and bagged up by store staff ready to be collected and delivered by a Deliveroo driver.

Adapting to survive

Linnworks’ Campbell and NearSt’s Brackenbury say stores have also taken on another role during the pandemic – as smaller, more local fulfilment centres.

“They very rapidly set up local distribution services, so they said order by midday and we will courier these products to you by 5pm tonight if you live in this part of a city centre,” says Brackenbury. “These are not sophisticated businesses and essentially they’ve set up a same-day delivery service in a number of days because they were forced to.”

Depending on the size of the business, this could either be through something as simple as letting customers know via Facebook or other social media that they are able to do deliveries while they set up something more sophisticated like a website.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a make-or-break situation for many retailers, in many cases forcing them to adapt or die.

While there was already a shift towards the relevance of physical stores as experiential spaces and customers demanding increased personalisation and flexible purchasing options, lockdown accelerated both these changing customer behaviours and the need for technology adoption to deal with them.

The direction the retail sector will continue in will be determined, in part, by how the pandemic develops, customer behaviour and its own adaptability.

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