Hands off! Touchless retail is already here.

MICHELE CAPRINI
11/01/2021
In brief
The health emergency has accelerated the trend, not new and not inherent to the virus, towards the progressive elimination of physical contact points in the purchasing cycle, including services. Now, the goal for retail operators is to capitalise on these trends and needs in an operational practice that improves customer relations at every possible level.

Touchless, just one word to indicate the elimination of human touchpoints in all phases of the consumer buying journey and related services. More than an opportunity and a mere competitive factor, touchless retail is an operational strategy that meets both commercial development objectives and new safety requirements in an extremely difficult context.

AN ANSWER TO TWO NEEDS

In short, touchless retail combines the improvement of the consumer experience in the store with the need to address social distancing concerns. Even if the use of e-commerce as a single purchase channel is increasingly widespread, the majority of consumers will always opt for a visit to the store, but feeling protected by appropriate measures.

It is time therefore to move on from the generalisation that online shopping and touchless retail are synonymous, as the latter is much more than a simple purchase via the internet. Automated purchases and shipments, technology of delivery of goods to pickup points or the curbside, returns management, digital payments, use of artificial intelligence in the different sale and service stages, are just some aspects of touchless retail, and the list of possible options would be much longer.

If we talk about catering, touchless means being able to choose from the menu, place an order and pay from the smartphone without moving from the table. Moreover, it allows to integrate online ordering via app and manage the delivery of your favourite food on-site or at home. An all this without human touchpoints.

AN OBLIGATORY PATH

In stores, the convergence of physical and digital commerce will be decisive, and touchless retail is a part of it. With this in mind, there is no revolution of which COVID-19 would be at the origin, as it simply accelerated shifts that were already well underway. For a number of years now, the most aware brands have been working on transforming points of sale into engaging experiences, played on the shelf, e-commerce site and social media.

Customers of major US distribution chains have long been offered touchless payment, pickup and delivery services aimed at protecting customers and staff. In general, by scanning a QR code synchronized with the app, it is possible to shop and receive from an operator the goods in the boot of the car without any contact, and the same applies for home deliveries.

BURBERRY STORE

Burberry’s first social retail store, recently opened in Shenzhen – a global megacity close to Hong Kong and an important Chinese commercial destination – uses the typical social media tools to place customer interaction at the centre of the store. This is done through a mini program of WeChat, the country leading digital services platform. Visitors to the store can enjoy exclusive content and personalised experiences, even in a gaming environment, to share with others and, of course, entirely touchless. Numerous QR codes also allow the visualization of other contents relating to the product or brand.

The store’s social setting allows Burberry to reach a much higher number of consumers than is currently allowed in regions where physical trading venues suffer from Coronavirus restrictions. Furthermore, social product presentations are considered of central importance to better convey communication between brand and consumer and increase engagement.

AT THE RESTAURANT

There are questions that those working in this sector would never have imagined asking themselves. How many customers feel comfortable in an enclosed space? How important is it to have outdoor seating? What distance should be observed between seat and seat? How many customers will want to have a digital kiosk between themselves, the table and the kitchen? How many will choose, alternatively, a home delivery service? And finally, how many will be persuaded to give up the restaurant because it takes care of their safety?

The same word touchless, moreover, seems to be the exact opposite of the prime prerogative of a restaurant or hotel, i.e. hospitality. And, instead, technologies of this type not only offer the necessary guarantees for the safety of guests, but also significantly increase their comfort. On the one hand, this allows guests to consult a menu, order and pay from their smartphone, and thus greater control of the times and mode of their experience and, on the other, it reduces the probability of error and staff stress, increasing the speed and quality of service.

The natural extension of the principles of comfort and safety can be applied to home food delivery services, after the appropriate choices of independent supply or in partnership with the most popular platforms. Adequate technology permitting that is.

TOUCHLESS RETAIL, THE INESCAPABLE FUTURE

The physical mediation ceases, in common habits and even more so during the health emergency, with the use of the smartphone, with the reluctance to visit public establishments and the awkward comparison with the advantages of online shopping and home-delivered food As a result, the surge and touchless digitalization of operations ceases to be an option, more or less advanced, and becomes a need.

Touchless retail should be understood as an improvement of the relationship with the customer, at every possible level, and effective adjustment to a period of restrictions whose end is not known. What is instead clear is the awareness that the needs, behaviours and expectations of those who pay for a product or a service have changed, definitively. Fewer regrets, and more investment: it will be better for everyone.