There’s digital pressure on the retail sector. Really? That’s nothing new. Bricks-and-mortar retailers have been reinventing themselves for the last two decades to stay competitive. Current events are challenging the sector more than any time in recent history, but once again, retailers are getting creative to stay viable.

In the thick of an incredibly challenging environment, we are witnessing creative innovation that will likely change the face of retail forever.

Most retailers are already well into their digital transformation journeys. In this article, we explore how retailers are adapting to offer additional value and convenience at a time when the traditional shopping experience has been turned on its head. Many businesses will struggle during this time but for some, the changes they make today may open new avenues for business on the other side of the pandemic.

The in-store tech shift: from connectivity to personalised, meaningful engagements

For a time, many people thought that offering customers internet access would be attractive for shoppers and in-store connectivity was a major tech focus for many retailers. Simple, secure and free entry onto a store’s Wi-Fi network is now a staple for most retailers, with customers browsing both their phones and shelves, as they roam aisles.

Recently, forward-thinking retailers have taken connectivity to the next level. They’ve invested in add-on technology that engages the in-store customer, providing them with memorable, convenient experiences through more personalised interactions. It’s these retailers, who bridge the online and offline gap, that are finding success amid these uncertain times.

For instance, we’re seeing in-store apps among major retailers offering added convenience by alerting customers to personalised discounts or new stock availability, all tailored based on previous transactions, loyalty and product demand trends. Powered by Bluetooth beacons dotted throughout a site, mobile apps are even helping customers find their way around a store (and to the best deals). The connection of online to in-store experience has proven to be a powerful combination.

There are three key benefits for retailers using in-store apps. Firstly, they help retailers meet personalised customer needs while reducing the requirement for in-person staff interactions, something especially helpful at a time of social distancing requirements. Secondly, they’re offering customers a level of convenience, access and speed that they have come to expect from the digital world. Finally, every interaction, positive or negative is a data point and every data point can provide rich insights which become part of an agile business plan.

When typical routines have significantly changed, bursts of aggregated data will immediately show new trends and allow us to quickly understand and react to the ‘new’ busiest weekdays and times, helping to manage effective staff rosters or suggest special opening hours for special groups (e.g.: seniors only). Insights regarding typical customer paths around the store may also drive changes to your product placement, while average lengths of stay will help store security manage queues outside. Smart retailers are even triggering their systems to alert local customers in real-time of high capacity periods, guiding optimum visit times. It could even create a virtual queue, allowing customers to hold a place without physically standing in line.

Keeping the lights on

As restaurants and cafes operate as take-away only, and groceries and major retail chains such as Bunnings and Kmart become flocked with customers, the value of click-and-collect apps have never been clearer.

In the past week, we’ve seen Westfield launch a drive through service, where customers can now click, drive and collect at valet areas, for an end-to-end contactless shopping service. Customers can order and pay for their goods from home, and park in a waiting bay while their purchased items are packed into their car by a Westfield staff member.

It’s incredible convenience, and you don’t have to be a big retail player to have a similar offering. These technologies can be scaled to meet the needs of any retailer’s size.

Building a dedicated click-and-collect app from scratch can be lengthy and expensive, however, by tapping into a semi-custom, cloud-based app solution, you can accelerate the process while keeping costs down. You can skin an app with your branding while ensuring it has all the basic ordering functionality, plus delivers rich insights about your customers.

Aggregated data from these apps can help you better understand customer trends, so you can make smarter menu or stock volume decisions. Plus, they can serve up personalised suggestions on items and add-ons for customers, based on their purchase history and preferences, as well as allow you to send personalised promotions aligned with the weather or major public holidays.

Creating a new normal

Post-pandemic, we’ll see ‘collect’ lanes and drive-throughs play a bigger role in the ‘new normal’ from food to fashion retail. Fast food chains have been developing a successful zero-touch blueprint for years.

Many retailers can learn from the likes of McDonald’s and Amazon Go, who’ve led the way in contactless, smart and convenient customer service. Last year McDonald’s began testing a solution that recognises the license plate of a customer in the drive through and uses that information, along with the time and traffic, to provide AI-based recommendations of menu items.

While, Amazon Go has recently announced it will start offering its ‘Just Walk Out’ cashier-less store technology to retailers, providing them with all the necessary equipment for check-out free shopping.

If contactless transactions weren’t previously a focus for retailers, they are now and should remain a priority when pandemic restrictions relax. Equally, you can’t put a dollar value on customer loyalty – many retailers during this time would say it’s the loyalty of their customers that has kept them afloat. Investing in your customer’s experiences through engaging, personalised interactions through smart use of apps are a sure way to building long-term brand advocates.

Retailers should be working hand in hand with their technology partners to pivot quickly amidst current circumstances, yet also in ways that are enduring – set to drive their success well beyond the pandemic.

Now’s the time to be inspired by fellow retailers succeeding in a time of great change because they’re meeting the needs of consumers with convenience, value, and a splash of wow.

Pat Devlin is Director South Pacific (ANZ) for Aruba, a HPE company