Retailers are increasingly beginning to turn to technology to solve the challenges presented by the Covid-19 era. Here are six examples of tech innovations that are being used to improve the in-store shopping experience.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the way that we shop.
During the period when lockdown restrictions were tightest in many parts of the world, ecommerce saw an unprecedented boom, with shoppers turning to online channels and delivery to buy goods that they couldn’t, or didn’t feel able, to go out to physical stores to buy.
Even now that those restrictions are easing and the vast majority of brick-and-mortar retail stores have reopened, fears about contamination persist. Shop owners are keen to earn their customers’ trust by demonstrating that they have put processes in place to manage the risk, and customers are keen to shop in an environment where they can feel confident and safe.
On top of measures like employing thorough cleaning regimes, requiring customers wear face coverings, making hand sanitiser widely available and laying down markings to encourage shoppers to physically distance themselves, retailers are increasingly beginning to turn to technology to solve these problems and improve the shopping experience.
From booking and virtual queuing systems to Scan, Pay & Go technology, many technological solutions are emerging or coming into greater prominence that promise an enhanced, smooth and Covid-19 safe in-store shopping experience. And depending on their success, we could see these technologies becoming part of the ‘new normal’ shopping experience in the longer term.
Here are six examples of in-store technology innovations for the Covid-19 era.
1) Scan, Pay & Go
Scan, Pay & Go is the name commonly given to technology that allows shoppers to use their smartphones to scan the goods they want to buy as they move around a store, usually via a dedicated app, before paying for them and leaving the store – no queueing or checkout process required.
There was already interest in the potential for Scan, Pay & Go technology to provide a more efficient shopping experience before Covid-19 spread across the globe, and a few supermarkets had conducted trials of the technology. Now, there is an even stronger use case for the technology as reducing queues and improving flow around shops means fewer chances for shoppers to come into close contact and potentially spread infection.
In April, UK supermarket Asda rolled out its Scan & Go Mobile programme to 200 additional stores in a bid to reduce contact with checkout staff, meaning that the technology is now available at all 581 Asda stores across the UK. Shoppers can use either a special handset or a dedicated app on their phone to scan goods, and the app or handset will also display a running total cost of the goods scanned. Asda has touted this as a feature that will help shoppers to budget and keep tabs on their spending in a financially difficult time – while also helping them to shop at a distance.
An informational video showing how to use Scan & Go Mobile to shop at Asda
The Henderson Group, which owns and operates a number of Spar and Eurospar stores across Northern Ireland, partnered with white-label ‘scan and go’ technology provider Ubamarket to bring Scan, Pay & Go technology to three of its stores in mid-April.
Another retail group in Ireland, BWG Foods, announced in late August that it would be piloting Scan, Pay & Go technology in two locations with a view to rolling it out more widely across its network of more than 1,000 independent retailers. The technology should also allow customers to scan products remotely from home for Click & Collect or home delivery orders, further reducing the time spent in-store, and retailers are also expected to be able to place limits on the quantity of goods purchased by each shopper, which will help with stock management.
Sainsbury’s supermarket announced in late July that its SmartShop Mobile Pay scheme would be rolling out to more stores in order to promote till-free and contactless shopping. At the time of the announcement, SmartShop Mobile Pay was live in 75 Sainsbury’s Local stores, and was subsequently introduced to 40 more, bringing the total number of stores that offer SmartShop Mobile Pay up to 115.
Sainsbury’s notoriously trialled a ‘checkout-free’ store experience for three months in 2019, during which time customers in its Holborn Circus store could only use SmartShop Mobile Pay to purchase goods, although they had the option of queuing at a helpdesk to pay.
The trial received complaints from customers, with in-store wi-fi problems and difficulty with scanning the QR codes on products contributing to a poor shopping experience. While this might seem to bode poorly for a wider roll-out of the technology, Sainsbury’s has hopefully put measures in place to prevent the same issues from reoccurring. In a press release detailing the expansion, it said that SmartShop already accounted for more than half of sales in some supermarkets, with more than a million customers using the app each week.
2) Dynamic digital signage
Markings and stickers placed on the floors of retail stores are a common way to enforce social distancing guidelines and manage the flow of shoppers throughout the store. However, they are a fairly one-dimensional solution. Some retailers are now beginning to embrace a more high-tech solution to managing in-store footfall: digital signage.
Samsung Electronics UK has partnered with Quividi, an audience and campaign intelligence platform for digital signage, to create a “next-generation solution” for keeping shoppers safe in-store. Samsung will create digital signboards, powered by Quividi’s analytics solution, that bolster in-store safety and security protocols and help retailers manage social distancing measures.
Using data capture devices like in-store cameras, the technology can count how many people are entering a given store, and can even detect whether or not they are wearing a face covering and use thermal scanning to identify shoppers with a high temperature who might not know they’re showing symptoms. The data is analysed in real-time, and determines what messages are shown on the signs via real-time triggers and conditional scheduling.
Retailers may have to implement the signage carefully to prevent customers from feeling uncomfortably surveilled while they do their shopping, but there are considerable benefits to using the technology. As well as being able to enforce social distancing guidelines more effectively, especially over a larger store area, retailers would be able to gain valuable data about foot traffic and the flow of people throughout the store that they could use to improve store layout. The signs also have the capacity to display adverts and promotional content alongside informational messages, which could be a needed source of additional revenue and sales.
Another digital signage solution for retailers is being developed by Panintelligence, a data analytics software provider, in collaboration with Everyangle, an Irish computer vision applications developer, and a San Francisco-based smart camera provider Cisco Meraki. It will use in-store smart cameras to monitor the number of people in a store and display the information on signage, showing shoppers whether it is safe to enter.
According to Business Up North, the solution is being developed for a “major food retailer” in the UK and will be trialled in a limited selection of stores with a view to being rolled out across the entire store network.
While digital signs that display store occupancy might seem as though they have a limited lifespan once the immediate danger of the coronavirus pandemic has passed, retailers could continue using them as a means of gathering more data on footfall, preventing overcrowding (especially during holiday shopping periods) and displaying relevant promotions and adverts within the store.
3) QR codes
QR codes are experiencing a renaissance at the moment in sectors like healthcare and hospitality as a contactless means of accessing information, activating virtual experiences, and tracking movements for the purposes of contact tracing. Small wonder, then, that they are also beginning to make their way into retail.
QR codes are already well-established in countries like China as a contactless payment method, and now this usage is also making an appearance in the west. In the United States, PayPal has partnered with digital wallet Venmo to roll out QR code payment technology across all 8,200 CVS Pharmacy stores in the country, as part of a multi-year agreement between PayPal and payment solutions provider InComm to “bring acceptance of PayPal and Venmo QR codes to retailers across the country”.
The QR codes will give CVS Pharmacy customers the option of paying for their purchases with stored debit or credit cards, bank accounts, their PayPal balance, PayPal Credit, Venmo balance or Venmo Rewards – as long as they have an account with PayPal or Venmo.
Mark Britto, Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer at PayPal, hailed the “incredible acceleration of digital payments and touch-free payments” that has come about due to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that, “QR codes … provide retailers an additional payment method that furthers this touch-free mission and continues the growth of digital payments for all partners in the ecosystem.”
Venmo has also launched a new feature called Business Profiles that allows small businesses to accept payments via a QR code, track business transactions and access customer analytics. It will initially be piloted with a limited number of iOS users before expanding to Android users, and later becoming available to all sellers for free.
Outside of facilitating payments, QR codes can also be a useful means of sharing business contact information. WhatsApp recently announced a feature that will allow WhatsApp Business users to create and share a QR code that when scanned, will initiate a WhatsApp chat with the business in question. Businesses have the option of pre-populating the chat with a message to start the conversation, or simply allowing the customer to initiate contact.
In India, Amazon has been using QR codes to augment the in-person shopping and payment experience with Smart Stores. Launched in June, Smart Stores are virtual storefronts that are activated by scanning a QR code with the Amazon app. Customers can select the products they want to buy in the app and check out with Amazon Pay. As an added bonus, local shops that use Smart Stores can offer Amazon Pay coupons to attract new customers and incentivise return visits from past customers.
Though QR code payments and other retail activations are still relatively under-used in many parts of the world, the contactless payment boom that has followed Covid-19 has set the stage for them to potentially take off as a flexible way to conduct transactions. With extra advantages like the ability to incorporate discount vouchers, loyalty points and even virtual storefronts, QR codes could play a part in helping retailers attract foot traffic back to their stores in the coming months.
4) Virtual fitting rooms
With home try-ons on the rise due to the coronavirus lockdown, retailers and technology providers have begun to innovate solutions that could help bridge the gap between the online shopping experience and the in-store experience when it comes to fittings and try-ons. Now that retailers are re-opening but changing rooms have remained closed due to hygiene concerns, these solutions may be moving in-store.
Fit:Match, a 3D body scanning and virtual fitting tool, is partnering with malls in the United States to bring its fit technology to various locations and help apparel retailers boost their bottom line. Three malls in Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas will be opening Fit:Match kiosks from September, which will allow shoppers to be 3D-measured (or “Fitched”) and then start shopping online with more than 50 partner brands, including Under Armour, Ted Baker and Nili Lotan.
As with many technology types covered in this article, Fit:Match’s virtual fitting room technology was developed and established before the pandemic broke out, but has a much stronger use case now.
Another company in the same space, 3DLook, has developed a voice-activated, browser-based scanning system called ‘Hands-Free’, which will then generate personalised size and fit recommendations or send the measurements to a business that creates clothing to order. The company recently revealed exclusively to WWD that it has partnered with Tailored Brands, the parent company behind Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, to bring its body scanning technology to more than 1,000 stores in the autumn.
Virtual fitting and body-scanning technology has previously proven difficult to scale. However, it could prove to be a lifeline for tailoring and made-to-order apparel businesses that have suffered greatly during the pandemic, as well as for clothing retailers in general, who will have a good chance of increasing their conversion rate and decreasing their rate of returns with personalised fit recommendations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought click-and-collect, often somewhat overlooked as a means of obtaining online orders, into new prominence as a way to reduce in-person contact and time spent shopping in-store. Building supplies and electricals retailer Toolstation is due to open up a number of click-and-collect only stores across the UK in response to “a rapid growth in Toolstation click and collect sales”, while high street bakery Greggs has also announced it will be introducing a click-and-collect service as part of a strategy to focus more on digital sales.
Marks & Spencer has also made its click-and-collect strategy a key focus of its accelerated digital transformation programme, ‘Never the Same Again’. It recently partnered with Doddle, a provider of click-and-collect and returns technology, to provide two new click-and-collect experiences: in-store contactless collection, and a ‘drive-through’ click-and-collect. M&S believes that both of these models will help customers to shop with more certainty in the current climate, while also offering a more convenient and seamless experience.
The new click-and-collect experiences are initially being trialled at three stores, which M&S will use to gather extensive data and customer feedback in order to understand demand. It is hoped that the technology partnership with Doddle will also made click-and-collect more efficient for M&S employees to manage in-store.
The online shopping boom, while it might seem like good news for retail and for digital transformation, has severely impacted many retailers’ margins due to the high cost of delivery and logistics. Providing click-and-collect, therefore, is an opportunity for retailers to save on these costs without missing out on the benefits that online channels have to offer.
6) Virtual queueing
Another technology becoming increasingly commonplace in retail as a means of managing customer flow and overcrowding is virtual queuing technology. John Lewis and Waitrose have partnered with Qudini, a queue management software provider, to trial their virtual queuing technology at three John Lewis stores and six Waitrose supermarkets across the UK.
Shoppers can scan a QR code, or send a text to a particular number, to either join a virtual queue or book a fixed timeslot for getting into the shop, which saves them from waiting around in a physical queue outside the store. Store staff can also use the Qudini app to track and manage the number of customers currently inside the store.
Another supermarket retailer trialling virtual queues is Sainsbury’s, which has been using a virtual queueing app called Ufirst to experiment with queue management in five stores during the first half of August. For those customers who do not have a smartphone, Sainsbury’s colleagues can add them to the queue (though it is unclear how they would be able to track their progress or receive a notification that they were at the front). If the trial proves to be a success, Sainsbury’s plans to roll virtual queuing out to branches across the country.
Sainsbury’s supermarket has partnered with Ufirst to implement a virtual queueing app. Image: Sainsbury’s
Outdoor sports equipment retailer Ellis Brigham has also adopted an online booking system for in-store customer appointments, and will be using Qudini’s virtual queuing software to manage walk-in customers. The retailer is also considering implementing tablets or kiosks that will allow customers to view the Ellis Brigham website while in-store, learn more about product ranges, and access all stock regardless of the size of branch they are visiting.
While many of these solutions are still in the trial phases and have yet to be rolled out on a wider scale, there is clearly a lot of innovation happening. Established technologies like click-and-collect and Scan, Pay & Go are seeing increased uptake and wider deployment by retailers, while newer emerging technologies like digital signage and virtual fitting rooms are being seriously tested and considered.
Whatever the developments of the next few months, it seems certain that the retail world that emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic will be a more technological one – hopefully to the benefit of both customers and retailers.