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Top 10 retail technology stories of 2019

Computer Weekly looks at what 2019 had in store for the retail industry – what technologies were retailers rushing to adopt and how is customer behaviour changing?

Customer behaviour has been changing over the past 10 years while technology adoption allows shoppers to be more demanding in their search for convenience.

In an attempt to deal with these new, fickle customers, retailers have been implementing modern technologies to cater to shopper habits.

An increase in experimentation with different technologies, such as data, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) augmented reality (AR) and mobile applications have featured heavily in 2019 as retailers aim to use tech to cater to increasingly demanding customers.

1. More than half of customers will shop for food online by 2021

Over the next few years, how customers shop for food is expected to change even further, with Capgemini research finding an expected increase in customers grocery shopping online by 2021.

Just over 40% of shoppers get their food online now, which is expected to increase to 56% in the next two years.

But many supermarkets aren’t willing to offer the added extras which could win customers over when it comes to choosing their preferred brands – only 1% of retailers are willing to cover full delivery costs despite 59% of customers saying prices are currently too high.

2. Interview: Andy Berks, digital product director, Asos

On the more technical end of the spectrum when it comes to online retail, former digital product director of Asos, Andy Berks, told Computer Weekly about some of the innovations the digital-first fashion brand has been implementing across 2019.

Across the year, the retailer tested several different kinds of technologies with its customers, including Virtual Catwalk, an augmented reality feature for its app which allows users to view models on their smartphones as if they were in front of them.

It also introduced personalisation to its shopping app to improve user experience through its Your Edit, Style Match and You Might Also Like features.

To make it easier for customers to order a product that fits them first time, the retailer introduced its Fit Assistant feature, which uses customer details and machine learning to recommend the right size garment.

3. Fundamentals of retail won’t change despite tech disruption, say experts

While digital is influencing both how customers shop and how retailers deliver services, the retail fundamentals of focussing on the customers will never change, according to experts.

During a British Retail Consortium (BRC) event focused on what skills will be needed to lead retailers in the future, a panel comprising representatives from BRC, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis said despite having to cope with technology change, a retailer’s focus will always have to be on catering to the customer.

4. Physical stores – the place to meet your tribe

Despite the increase of online shopping, stores still have their place in the world of retail.

Almost half of shoppers prefer brands with physical stores, and for some retailers stores are becoming a place where customers can meet other people like them and build loyalty with a brand.

At Retail Expo 2019, representatives from Lego, Vans and M&Ms described how stores are now seen as locations for experiences rather than just places to make purchases.

This can be especially true of brands which have a more tactile product people want to touch and try, or a product which has more of a cult following.

5. How retailers are using social to reach Gen Z and beyond

The past year saw an increase in the blurring of lines between social media, online content and making purchases.

This is especially true of younger shoppers, who are more comfortable interacting with brands over social media, leading retailers to use social platforms to reach and research younger audiences.

There have also been instances where retailers have partnered with content providers to allow consumers to browse and purchase goods through social platforms and then continue with what they were doing before they began to shop.

6. Kellogg’s tests VR for developing merchandising strategy

Virtual reality and augmented reality grew in popularity in the retail sector in 2019 as brands tried new ways to appeal to customers or to play around with digital technologies.

Kellogg’s announced it had worked with Accenture and Qualcomm to test the use of VR to decide where best to put new products in stores.

In the pilot, eye-tracking technologies assessed how customers react to product placements around shops. The brand could then determine where in a shop it is best to put a product to gain more sales.

7. Retailers engineer new ways to recruit and retain IT talent

A shift towards digital has left many worried that there could be a decrease in yearly retail employment – the BRC pointed the finger at an increase in digital adopting and online sales for reduced retail jobs.

But many brands, such as Holland & Barrett, Feelunique, and BrandAlley shared their experience on seeking out and hiring a different kind of talent – technology talent.

In-house IT skills and engineering talent are increasing in demand in the retail sector as the shift towards digital shines a light on the need for a different kind of skillset.

Where retailers aren’t seeking tech talent, they are growing their own, with both Sainsbury’s and M&S working on their data science talent over the past year.

8. M&S and Ocado announce £750m food delivery joint venture

In a bid to boost its poor online grocery delivery standards in line with customer demand, Marks & Spencer announced it would be working with Ocado to give customers access to online food delivery for the first time.

The £750m deal, which saw M&S take a 50% share of Ocado’s UK retail business, will give customers access to M&S branded goods when ordering online through Ocado.com, and will also give Ocado access to Marks and Spencer’s 12 million customers and the data of its 7 million shoppers with Sparks membership.

9. From friction-filled to till-free: The path to a checkoutless Sainsbury’s store

At the 2019 Retail Expo, Daniel Hills, group digital product manager for Sainsbury’s, announced that the supermarket had launched a trial in a London store which had no physical tills.

Instead, customers were able to use a smartphone application to scan and pay for goods as they were shopping to get rid of the need for queuing and checking out at the end of the shopping experience.

The experiment came from asking customer where and how they shopped, after which the brand found customers will hop from supermarket to supermarket based on convenience and customer experience, and that they also hate to queue.

10. How retail store technology is filling the ‘imagination gap’

Whenever customers are browsing in a store or online, there is a length of time between considering an item and actually making a purchase.

Many retailers are now using technology both to reduce the amount of time customers take to decide to buy an item, and to engage them and get them talking about brands

This includes brands such as AO.comArgos, Heals and Ikea, introducing or researching 360-degree imagery, AR, videos or live broadcasting of products to encourage customers to make a purchase by giving them more of an idea what a product would look like in their home.

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