As people come out of COVID hibernation, how are stores changing their approach?


Written by Assaf Gedalia, CEO and co-founder of Walk around

As shoppers begin to push their personal boundaries to enter the urban market, big changes are coming for the retail business, and there is no turning back.

Physical stores have faced an uphill battle with online shopping since before the pandemic, and 2020 has really accelerated the trend for shoppers to buy things on the web. The question in the future will be whether consumers enjoyed this shopping experience or instead remembered the old way of shopping that some entrepreneurs had left for dead. And with the majority of shoppers expected to keep their online spending at pandemic level, according to a investigation by Namogoo, retailers are scrambling to run with this latest reality and position themselves as the next new chapter in shopping – a “modern” brick and mortar experience. To achieve this, delivering a high-quality customer experience is something most industry observers agree needs improvement, having surpassed price and product as a key brand differentiator, according to an Oracle report.

One of the ways to improve the shopping experience is to reduce friction in the customer journey. To achieve this goal, retailers are harnessing new technologies with the aim of bringing the ease of online shopping to physical stores. And with the rise of contactless payment systems, such as PayPal One Touch, Apple Pay, and Google Pay, the next step to seamless retailing will be the “frictionless shopping experience”.

For retailers, the task will be to identify the highest sticking points in their customer journey. It’s no secret that long lines at checkouts can deter customers, while out-of-stock scenarios alongside a crowded store can create a stressful environment. Removing this friction remains a hurdle that many retailers have yet to overcome. Fortunately, the development of technology offers more and more a multitude of solutions to relieve the most diverse pain points.

One of the central tenets of frictionless shopping will be the streamlining of the checkout process. Consumers were already fed up with queuing at checkouts before the pandemic, and the appetite for contactless solutions has only intensified from the start. A new approach to checkouts, where payments are processed automatically as they leave the premises, can dramatically enhance the customer experience while speeding up the pace of sales processing. Most consumers think payment is the biggest problem in the retail experience, according to in Nielsen. An easy checkout could also attract new customers to the location, creating more traffic for the store without making it feel overcrowded.

With this, retailers can also equip customers with their own digital shopping assistants, deployed on smart cart monitors or on their smartphones. This would give shoppers instant access to all the product and store information they need while taking some of the pressure off store associates. The latter is valuable because thanks to online points of sale, social media and the Internet in general, consumers are more informed than ever about the features, prices and availability of products. By integrating digital assistants, stores can help customers make better choices while keeping them up to date with promotional offers and providing targeted discounts to build relationships.

Another added benefit of getting smart is an opportunity to improve in-store inventory management, retailers lose billions of dollars in sales every year due to out-of-stock scenarios. But what continues to surprise is the lack of progress by retailers in controlling a problem that, while it may never be completely eliminated, can be successfully mitigated. Aside from the lost sale, the problem also results in longer costs. Customer dissatisfaction, buyer defection and brand reputation are just a few. But by changing payment processing methods with smart cars or frictionless checkouts, retailers can get a constant stream of real-time data on product availability. This not only reduces the need for manual checks, but also creates a plethora of opportunities for store decision makers to study underlying consumer trends, responding proactively rather than reactively.

By identifying the shortcomings of online shopping, such as paid delivery charges, a smart upgrade of physical outlets can even boost their competitiveness by bringing back some of the shoppers who may have embraced the web.

Move forward to new opportunities

Now, despite all the virtues of the new solutions, it’s important to remember that not all friction is bad. Some customers, especially older ones, appreciate the human touch aspect when it comes to shopping, such as asking for advice. Likewise, queues can be seen as offering more benefit to retailers as they increase the chances of the customer choosing something from the cash register stalls. But as long as smart shopping stores can help fill this void through strategic digital in-store promotions, most of the tangible physical benefits of physical purchases can be replicated in smart purchases.

However, while it is unrealistic – and sometimes undesirable – for the shopping experience to be completely fluid, retailers must constantly monitor and take ownership of the sticking points in their store’s customer journeys. Each of them should be assessed against the overall strategy and priorities of the business, the possible benefits weighed against the relative drawbacks of the customer experience.

This brings us to an inevitable turning point: Times are changing, and as we move from managing the crises of today to preparing for the opportunities of tomorrow, the boundaries between digital and physical retail have blurred to a so much so that the industry recently coined the term “phygital”. Retailers who are slow to fine-tune their customer experience risk losing their customers to more tech-savvy networks. With new purchasing methods such as BOPIS (buy online to pick up in store) and BOSS (buy online and ship to store) having only increases in popularity, today’s customers are less stubborn with their purchasing habits than ten years ago.

The pandemic has altered our trends, while technology has enabled a landscape that can align with this change. The retail business that ultimately emerges will be a smart shopping concoction of technology-powered smart carts, real-time interactive monitors, and more informed, timely shoppers.

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