It is no secret that ecommerce has boomed during the pandemic, with Australia Post reporting a 24% increase in online shopping between August 2020 and August 2021.

While the shift towards online purchasing has been nothing short of remarkable, scenes from the reopening of brick-and-mortar retail stores across New South Wales in recent weeks are a testament to the fact that Aussie’s love of the shopfront will endure well beyond the virus.

Across the state, eager shoppers recently lined outside their local Kmart to be the first in-store as the clock struck midnight, while loyal patrons were up before sunrise to be amongst the first to dine in at their favourite local cafés and restaurants.

The reopening of retail has no doubt given NSW and Victorian businesses something to smile about after enduring lengthy lockdowns. However, given Australians enjoy the ability to shop both in-store and online, it should also serve as a timely reminder to retailers that they must optimise their face-to-face and digital customer experiences to be successful.

There is only one way to do this, that is of course, through embracing digital innovation.

Technology is key to not only ensuring storefronts are ready, but that back of house management systems are well-prepped to withstand the influx of customers braced to descend on retail throughout the holiday shopping season, and beyond.

Transforming the retail experience with Digital Twins

Traditionally, retailers have been operating on legacy and manual systems. Fortunately, in the past few years, the industry has started to embrace technologies designed to address the ever-changing demands of customers. For example, we’ve seen the blending of the in-store and online experience with new developments such as the rise of ‘Click and Collect’ options. Alongside e-commerce developments, we’ve recently seen the introduction of more cutting-edge innovations such as AR/VR and advanced analytics which are unlocking efficiencies and enhancing the customer experience.

Digital twins are one of the most ground-breaking technologies with the potential to drive new efficiencies which will ultimately transform the retail sector. To put it simply, digital twins are photorealistic and dimensionally accurate digital replicas of physical spaces – whether it be a shopfront, entire shopping mall or outdoor retail village. They bring any space to life, offering capabilities such as interactive virtual walk-throughs and providing a more immersive and engaging customer experience that traditional 2D photos, floor plans and text simply cannot replicate.

Many businesses have successfully leveraged digital twins to provide their customers with high-quality shopping experiences during the pandemic, often in the form of virtual store viewings. However, the application of digital twins within the retail sector extends far beyond creating immersive e-Commerce experiences for online shoppers. This technology has the potential to reinvent the way retailers operate their back of house systems too.

From optimised inventory control to better facilities management, faster-merchandising cascades, more engaging staff training and maximising value out of data insights – the benefits are far-reaching. Let’s take a closer look at how they do this.

Keeping one step ahead

One of the biggest challenges facing retailers in the hybrid shopping environment is how to manage store planning and merchandising.

Digital twin technology delivers retailers with accurate 3D visual representations of not only their stores but the data behind it. This gives them intuitive access to information that is often buried inside emails and spreadsheets.

Instant access to information such as accurate measurements of the entire store including specific dimensions of aisles, equipment, window displays and anything else within it can change the way retailers plan for visual merchandising, seasonal promotions, and new product rollouts.

For multiple stores, merchandise planning can be conducted and approved virtually off-site. This not only saves time and travel expenses but allows for a more comprehensive and collaborative store design and planning process.

Better documentation, better alignment

As any store employee would know, one of the most time consuming – and often manual – activities is documentation of inventory and physical assets within the shopfront.

However, digital twins can create a visual record of all assets within retail spaces – in a matter of seconds. By using this technology, retailers can label equipment and stock received with digital tags to document any repairs, maintenance, and equipment training information. Thus, employees can easily access information to ‘tagged’ equipment without having to depend on other personnel.

For retailers operating multiple stores, 3D scans are especially beneficial. For example, the scans can be shared regularly with executives, real estate, facilities, and loss prevention teams to make sure every store is up to par – all assessed virtually. Faulty equipment can be replaced quickly, renovations can be approved, and insurance coverage adjusted without ever being on-site.

Putting customers at ease

While restrictions are easing, and consumers are returning to stores, the effects of the pandemic will be felt throughout the retail industry for many years to come. Customer safety and assurance will be of the utmost priority. Any technology which allows stores to operate efficiently, while simultaneously reducing staff on the ground and travel between stores will be essential.

Whether for a quick order pickup or an in-store visit, digital twins allow retailers to give their customers the visual assurance that all the right precautions are taken on-premises to ensure health and safety for all. By providing a digital twin of  a store, consumers can enter with the knowledge that there is ample space to move around while following physical distancing guidelines for example. Digital twins help retailers fulfil the demand for spaces that are more efficient, sustainable, and mindful of hygiene concerns while still creating an engaging environment.

Setting up for success post-pandemic

The pandemic has highlighted Australians’ love for shopping both in-store and online, requiring retailers to leverage new technologies to streamline front and back-of-house management.

While there is a clear role for digital twins to enhance the customer shopping experience, the technology delivers extensive benefits for retailers too. Whether it’s through better inventory management, supply chain optimisation or building robust merchandising systems – digital twins can digitise and streamline even the most arduous manual processes.

With NSW and VIC now open for businesses, now is the time for retailers to think about incorporating digital twins into the retail mix to optimise gains as we enter the next recovery phase.

Stephanie Lin is senior director of business strategy for retail at Matterport.