Christmas is fast approaching but for Australia’s retail sector it’s likely to be a shopping season like no other. Foot traffic promises to be significantly down and ecommerce way up, as COVID-cautious customers give online present buying a big thumbs up and bricks and mortar browsing a wide swerve.

These conditions may provide the push many retailers need to embark on the next phase of digital transformation. Phase one – consumer acceptance of online shopping and the introduction of ecommerce solutions to support it – is already a fait accompli. In the 12 months to June 2020, Australians spent a whopping $35.69 billion on online retail, according to the NAB Online Retail Sales Index. That’s just over 10 per cent of the total retail trade estimate and all signs suggest that figure will continue to rise.

Digital transformation: round two

So, what is stage two likely to usher in? Augmented reality (AR) shopping, for starts. Until recently, it was more novelty or ‘nice to have’ rather than a driving need but that’s changing, and fast. In 2019, Gartner predicted that some 100 million customers would be shopping in augmented reality, online and instore, within the year.

In today’s times, solutions that allow retailers to engage with potential buyers, enable them to interact with products and services and deliver a level of customer experience approximating that on offer in store can provide a significant competitive advantage.

Homewares behemoth Ikea clearly thinks so and is leading the charge. Its AR powered app allows customers to place furniture in their homes virtually, and purchase directly if they like what they see.

Over on the apparel front, homegrown online retailer The Iconic is offering a similar experience. Its app has a ‘visualise’ feature which allows fashionistas to ‘try’ its footwear range on for size and style.

Expect more retailers to follow in their footsteps, as the battle for eyeballs and engagement hots up in 2021.

Talk to us: voice assisted commerce

Voice assisted commerce may also be set to come into its own.

Siri and Alexa, Apple and Google’s AI-driven virtual assistants, have long since lost their novelty value, while smart speakers in the home have become unremarkable in recent times. Some 1.35 million Australian households had one by late 2018, according to research from local voice and digital agency Versa. Listening to music, checking the weather and watching movies are the most common uses today but it’s a short step from doing those things to reaching out to a retailer to enquire about an item or sending through a list to the local supermarket.

For retailers, voice represents another channel they can use to engage with shoppers from afar – and a cost effective one at that. Being able to guide themselves through the buying process is empowering for customers and reinforces the self-service mentality which the likes of Bunnings, Coles and Woolworths have fostered in recent years.

Upping the quality of the in-store experience

Meanwhile, providing shoppers who venture instore – as they inevitably will, when physical distancing restrictions lift and life returns to normal – with an experience that’s congruent with that being offered in the digital sphere will also become a focus.

Mobile technology will play an integral part in that experience: helping retailers create iPod and iPad-based point of sales systems in place of the traditional cash register, with its attendant queue; and putting tablets in the hands of sales assistants so they can check stock specifications and availability while they’re on the floor.

Also needed is a strong management solution, to ensure such seamless service isn’t marred by technological glitches and hitches which sales attendants are unable to resolve.

Focusing on the future

Recent events have forced Australian retailers of all sizes and stripes to reconsider their value proposition and the customer experience they’re able to deliver, online and in real life. The adoption of emerging technologies may allow forward thinking players to gain an edge, by differentiating themselves from the competition. In today’s challenging times, what could be more important?

Seamus Johnston is senior account executive at JAMF