The events of 2020 have changed many aspects of our lives for good. From office workers and service staff to teachers and tradies, these challenging months have transformed how we all navigate the world around us, ushering in an era of greater caution but also mindfulness.

However, even as we take the necessary steps to minimise surface contact, maintain safe social distancing, and reduce time spent indoors with strangers, we should consider the very real possibility that rather than being a temporary inconvenience, these measures signpost the “new normal” in our world.

If this is the case, Australia’s high-street retailers face an increasingly uncertain future and must take steps to secure their place in the retail landscape.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the retail industry, many were feeling the pinch long before the pandemic landed on our shores. Even before lockdowns, more Australians than ever before turned to online for their everyday essentials or to scratch that persistent retail-therapy itch.

The NAB Online Sales Index estimates Australian consumers spent about $39.2 billion in the 12 months before August 2020. Online shopping now accounts for 11.5 percent of total retail sales in Australia.

While it’s incredibly sad to see the pandemic deliver the final straw for so many outlets, it has also helped reaffirm that a new approach is needed if the physical shopping experience is to recapture the attention of Australia’s increasingly time-poor and option-rich consumers.

In a desperate bid to win back shoppers, brick-and-mortar stores have been pitching themselves as safe places to shop, with pandemic busting measures such as heat-mapping, digital check-ins and wayfinding decals now commonplace in most Australian shopping centres. These new realities have also placed a larger emphasis on the flow of people and enable seamless, safe movement through retail spaces, while also delivering a shopping experience that connects with customers on a deeper level.

As daunting as this process may seem during such uncertain times, from adversity often comes some of our greatest ideas. For brick-and-mortar outlets, capitalising on new innovations in smart, connected technologies that create intuitive, ambient, and connected experiences could be the key to once again commanding the attention of Aussie consumer.

Using open application programming interfaces (APIs), third party apps can be developed to meet ongoing changes in customer and retailer needs, providing laser-focused solutions to enhance journeys through the retail space. APIs open the door to the next level of customer journey that leave the shopper wanting to come back and relive the experience again and again.

Wayfinding information built into shopping centre infrastructure? No problem. Dynamic digital displays personalised for the viewer? Done. A particularly exciting example of seamless API integration in Australia comes from BlindSquare, the world’s most widely used GPS app for the blind, deafblind, and partially sighted. It’s app uses APIs to sync with the physical infrastructure within commercial retail spaces to automatically call a lift from the user’s mobile to move  safely between floors.

Further, by gathering and analysing data for insights that reveal what is and isn’t working for the enhancement of the customer experience, these connected, smart technologies enable retailers to discover how their space handles the flow of people, enabling them to achieve maximum sales potential and safety.

While it is exciting to ponder the potential of such future-focused technologies, it’s a simple truth that in an increasingly smart world, physical retailers must evolve to survive. By integrating smart technologies into their spaces now, retailers have an opportunity to create a more holistic shopping experience that draws customers back into brick-and-mortar shopping environments, while also ensuring they are as safe as possible.

More and more retailers are recognising that the key to a flexible and future-proof infrastructure is connectivity, and they are upgrading their offerings accordingly. This means helpful in-store navigation technology, super screen ads that offer real-time discounts, and even cloud-connected elevators that facilitate a seamless and personalised shopping experience are all here and ready to change the way we shop. As we continue our lives in the ‘new normal’, retailers can assure their customers of the kind of safety that only comes with a smart, data-driven retail environment.

Jerome Audais is managing director Australia & New Zealand at KONE