While many of us have increasingly supported local manufacturing and small business since the pandemic stopped global trade in its tracks in 2020, it’s also been a period of significant tech investment as retailers race to accommodate a surge in online customers.

There’s long been a divide between the physical in-store experience and the online digital experience. But more and more, especially post-COVID, the retail experience is becoming a hybrid of the two.

And while the Australian market is historically slower to adopt new technology than other countries, there’s some game-changing technology emerging in the retail sector right now. So Aussies, keep your eyes peeled if you want to know what’s really happening in retail this Christmas. You never know what surprises Santa has ‘in store’ for you.

Retailers, adapt or die?

While some traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ retailers are dragging their heels, the retail experience has evolved massively over the past few years. We’ve seen major technology advancements in store for both customers – think QR codes, smartphone payments, and 3-hour delivery windows – and retailers. Remember when a store didn’t have the trainers you wanted, they would need to call another store? Their POS system may or may not have been company-wide. If that happened today you’d get quickly bored and take yourself and your dollars elsewhere.

Today, consumers have every retailer, stock level, and price at their fingertips in an instant. Digital tech helps time-poor, tech-savvy consumers make decisions more quickly and more easily. For retailers? At the end of the day, tech sells products. So they need to adapt to our changing lifestyles and shopping habits, or face the consequences.

COVID upped the ante

At the onset of the pandemic, retailers were forced (if they hadn’t already) to invest in UX and backend systems to keep their businesses driving forward – sadly, many didn’t survive. Others worked overtime to cut costs and ‘flex and bend’, incorporating innovative new technology to keep consumers spending.

Furniture retailer Cosh Living launched an augmented reality (AR) app which enabled customers to visualise furniture pieces in their home on their smartphone or tablet. Bunnings, too, launched an app which enabled customers to place a 3D render of 60 of its outdoor products into a digital picture of their outdoor space.

Meanwhile endless aisles is a strategy many retailers have adopted to enable in-store shoppers to order products that may or may not be available on the shop floor online for delivery, almost like a reverse ‘click and collect’. Endless aisles not only diminishes the need to hold 100 per cent of inventory in-store, it helps build customer loyalty by enabling shoppers to buy what they came for, and minimises the costly and time-consuming process of managing online returns.

Coming to a store near you

And there is more on the horizon. According to Forbes Councils Member Julia Dietmar, as consumers’ “initial fascination with e-commerce fades, retailers must find ways that they can gamify, personalize and offer truly memorable shopping experiences online.”

So what’s next for Australian shoppers?

  • Virtual fitting rooms. Virtual fitting rooms employ AR or artificial intelligence (AI) to enable consumers to virtually see what a garment or accessory might look like on them, or mix and match outfits on models that look similar to them. So not only do they enhance the experience for customers, retailers can gather sophisticated data on their customers’ preferences and shopping habits.
  • Concierge robots. No longer just the stuff of futuristic dreams, retail robots are already performing mundane, low-skilled tasks such as “spotting spills in Giant Foods Stores to autonomous shelf-scanners checking inventory in Walmart”. Like virtual fitting rooms, robots’ future power lies in gathering and analysing invaluable consumer behaviour data.
  • Location-based push notifications. Location-based push notifications are geotargeted, incentivised direct marketing messages. Particularly useful for location-based retailers (cafes and restaurants, for example), they’re designed to push offers to consumers when – and where – they need them based on previous or presumed behaviours. They also enable retailers to market to highly-nuanced audience segments.

E-commerce isn’t going to obliterate bricks and mortar retailing in a hurry. Far from it. It’s certainly making it more competitive for retailers, though, and that’s a good thing for shoppers. As our relationship with technology and e-commerce evolves, retailers need to remain agile and be smart about what they offer, who to, how they do it, and when – not just at Christmas, but all year. ‘Tis always the season for a bargain and convenience.

Tristan Sternson is CEO of ARQ Group and co-lead of NCS NEXT.