With the COVID-19 pandemic, the past 36 months have been a difficult time for Australia’s retail industry, with businesses having to navigate a plethora of challenges, ranging from rising costs and supply chain disruptions to grave labour shortages. 

Further adding to the pressure on retailers are rising customer expectations. According to Zebra’s 15th Annual Global Shopper Study, while customers want an omnichannel experience, nearly three-in-four consumers surveyed are also returning to shopping in-store at pre-pandemic levels. But they bring heightened expectations with them. For instance, according to recent consumer survey commissioned by OpenText, 66% of the surveyed consumers are more likely to buy again from brands that offer an individualised experience. 

Moving forward, to remain competitive in these tough conditions, businesses must focus on resilience and agility. Here are the top transformational trends and predictions for 2023 that are likely to shape how businesses change their processes.

Optimised inventory, including loss prevention, will be critical

To retain customers in an increasingly volatile market, product availability is non-negotiable. In fact, according to the same Zebra Study, both in-store and digital customers surveyed rated product availability and selection as one of the top reasons they choose to shop at a store.

However, challenges such as supply chain disruptions and high-interest rates are expected to continue being major roadblocks, and retailers must find ways of optimising inventory to meet demand. To do this, effectively planning of inventory with increased visibility across stock levels is key. Enhanced visibility includes:

  • On-shelf availability: receiving, moving, counting, and merchandising inventory to ensure accuracy and availability.
  • Modernise in-store fulfilment: real-time view of inventory location.
  • Asset Protection: increase inventory performance by active theft and fraud prevention practices and investments.

To support these needs, we are likely to witness an uptake in radio frequency identification (RFID) tools. And while RFID technology in the retail store environment has been around for years, the evolutions in tag size, cost, and printability are driving new, high-value use cases that are poised to take off. The technology can decrease the time it takes to count inventory and dramatically increase a retailer’s knowledge of where products are located. This allows for a richer analysis of loss vectors, even those further back up the supply chain before the store. 

A seamless, unified commerce experience across channels

In 2023, the likely expectation is that customer experiences will be further improved and, most importantly, that retailers execute them more profitably. There are several key foundational elements to increase the profitability of the physical retailer. This includes modernising in-store fulfilment using real-time inventory views to streamline order fulfilment tasks. Retailers need to have a broadened view of the distribution network and optimise reverse logistics by using data insights to drive efficiency and better business outcomes for inevitable returns.

Going into the new year, we will likely see an increase in unified commerce platforms (UCPs) and digital order managers (DOMs), which forms a comprehensive system to include connection points to view the location of products as well as Point-of-Sale (POS) and e-commerce data. For most segments today, this is more of a strategic imperative than a deployable technology. But in 2023, new concrete options will start to emerge, and retailers should begin to connect disparate systems with this end goal in mind. 

Furthermore, not all changes must necessarily be technology-related. The same Zebra   Study suggested retailers to reconsider the flexibility of store layouts to accommodate new technologies and allow for new shopper behaviours. In practice, this means that retailers should consider changes to physical stores such as including dedicated spaces to allow for store pickups, more self-checkout options, more services counters, and more returns areas. 

Another area where retailers can see a significant improvement in their returns in 2023 is better omnichannel risk management (ORM). ORM takes a more holistic view of sales, returns, theft and loss, diving deep into data and operational implications.

Empowered and tech-enabled front-line associates

Human-centred automation will also play a major factor in the increased efficiency of retailers, especially as the Australian unemployment rate hits an all-time low of 3.4%. With the help of robots and software to do the repetitive and tedious parts of a job, associates can have more time for higher-value work such as assisting customers. By optimising workforce management, retailers can accurately forecast workforce needs such as matching employees with appropriate skills and tenure to optimise scheduling and apply easy mechanisms for time offs, shift swaps, and other similar situations. Streamlining communication task management can also improve overall efficiency through optimising and simplifying task execution.

2023 may also see the increased adoption of smart robots. These are electromechanical systems that can offload some repetitive tasks that would otherwise be carried out by front-line workers. The business benefits are numerous: potentially greater reliability at lower cost, increased safety, and higher productivity. They can also simultaneously capture far more data, potentially opening further robot-augmented use cases. It will be several years before smart robots become commonplace, but 2023 is a year for businesses to experiment, thus giving them clearer and earlier insight into value delivery. 

Brett Newstead is director of sales at Zebra Technologies ANZ.