Life In A Pandemic: How Bright Is The Future of Retail

Retailers with a physical-only presence face greater challenges with customers shifting online at an unprecedented rate.
Life In A Pandemic: How Bright Is The Future of Retail

The pandemic is challenging the status quo with reduced footfalls, disrupted supply chains, and a distant recovery. Retailers with a physical-only presence face greater challenges with customers shifting online at an unprecedented rate. 

The pandemic has transformed the entire shopping experience of a customer into 3 stages that need to evolve. This article looks at the near term as well as the long-term impact of the pandemic on consumer preferences for in-store retail shopping. 
 
Pre-Purchase:

With fear and safety concerns still looming large on the minds of shoppers, the consideration is not just on price or quality but also centred around safety, health, and convenience. 40 percent of customers express an increasing willingness to shop online for home appliances and electronics. 

However, automobiles, furniture, and jewellery still value in-store experiences of physically inspecting the product and the relationships with the retailers and brands. These categories must strengthen their omnichannel capabilities with the online and offline channels complementing each other underpinned by the experience of exclusivity.
 
Customers are wary of travelling long distances to shop at their preferred locations. About 50 percent of customers who preferred shopping at malls and multi-brand stores indicated that they would now prefer to shop at locations closer to home. Further, due to the emerging ‘planned buying’ behaviour of customers, 78 percent responded that they would not enter stores that seem too crowded and 51 percent said that they would go to an alternate store if there is a queue outside their regular store. The ‘vocal over local’ trend initiated by the government is also at an all-time high as 44 percent customers prefer to go for local brands over international ones. 
 
In-Store Experience:

With the onset of COVID-19, there is an increasing thrust on retailers to readjust their business operations to increase preference for online and contactless purchases and decrease preference for physically visiting stores. Customers are looking for efficient shopping ways to protect themselves from the pandemic, with 40 percent of respondents unwilling to spend more than 15 minutes in any particular store. This would lead to the difficulty of assessing the physical attributes like size, fit, feel of the product for customers. Hence, retailers need to consider the use of recent and emerging technologies like AR/ VR displays, magic mirrors, kiosks, RFID/ QR product finder, smart carts, and virtual store assistants. Adoption of these technologies will provide the dual benefit of increased sales and streamlined backend costs. 63 percent of customers are also willing to pay a premium to stores that adopt technologies that make the shopping experience more efficient and contactless. 
 
Checkout and Delivery:

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of contactless technologies among customers. On the one hand, 76 percent of customers want their purchases to be sanitised again after purchase and prefer to pay via UPI or digital wallets. On the other hand, 78 percent of customers prefer to use self-checkout kiosks. 

To stay ahead of the competition, firstly, retailers need to assure customers that safety measures are in place, which needs to be communicated to them as well. And secondly, customers are looking for effective and efficient shopping experiences making contactless technologies a must for retailers. Therefore, retailers with the initial building blocks in place supported with a longer-term investment will be well-positioned to capitalise on this trend. 

The most successful example of contactless technology is the Amazon Go by Amazon. It is an entirely contactless shopping experience for grocery shoppers, using what it calls the ‘just walk out’ technology. Leveraging a combination of AI, Deep Learning, and RFID sensors, shoppers can simply walk into an Amazon Go store, pick up required items and walk out. No cashiers, no queues. Shoppers log in through the Amazon Go app. The technology detects when products are taken or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in the virtual cart. Customers are billed on the Amazon app when they walk out of the store.
 
However, fraud management and maintaining discipline are challenges which retailers will need to tackle in innovative ways. Retailers can also use geo-tagging technologies to enable express delivery within reasonable distances and charges based on kilometres travelled.

“Post-pandemic, there is a significant change in consumer behaviour that is impacting how they evaluate purchase decisions and their expectations from the retail experience. Retailers can no longer depend on price differentiation alone to attract and retain customers. They need to be agile and transform their businesses across the customer’s purchase journey to address concerns and existing pain points,” according to a report by EY.
 

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