Continuous and advanced technological innovation is a vital necessity for retail. It has been talked about a lot for a long time, well before the health emergency, with the risk of turning it into a stereotype and reducing the concept itself to banality. But by taking a quick look at recent history, the implementation or otherwise of adequate levels of technological innovation explains much of the successes and setbacks of many market players, as well, of course, the stage in which they take place: the store.
In order to speak with propriety of technological innovation, we could try to define its exact boundary. Only to then realize that it is useless. In fact, there is no trace of the typical processes, of the sales cycle, of the relationship with the consumer, where this does not generate a competitive advantage or, if not applied, a sure penalty. This starting from customer profiling and continuing with digital signage, smart shelves and labels, interactive kiosks, augmented and virtual reality, order management, cash systems, payments, deliveries, IoT, robotics and various forms of artificial intelligence.
At the basis of this there is the capitalization – with the most advanced analytics tools – of all available information (numbers, texts, dates, codes), now universally considered as an absolute prerequisite of any business.
The proper management of the supply chain and the enhancement of the consumer shopping experience are among the main factors of growth, or of the longed-for market recovery. The technological innovation of retail allows traditional distribution channels to compete with online retailers and regain market share, bring more customers to the store and strengthen their loyalty.
This applies across the entire retail sectors. In the fashion industry, for example, technological innovation finds in robotics the best answer for the management of deliveries and returns, which has always been one of the items of greater concern in customer service.
Conversely, in large-scale distribution a new retail concept has been established by two e-commerce giants such as Alibaba and JD.com. The Hema and 7fresh supermarkets are, in fact, the publicity banners of the integration of digital and physical commerce into a single and engaging shopping experience. It is also worth recalling that in the turbulent events of American retail in recent years, it is precisely technological innovation that, unexpectedly for some, allowed the strengthening in both absolute and relative terms of the traditional players of the physical distribution, such as Walmart, CostCo and Target.
In the catering sector, which has been badly affected as that of tourism by the health emergency, the transformation will have to focus on technology, which is vital for emerging from the lockdown. The most important areas of application are the management of orders and payments at the table and via smartphone, the integration of food delivery services, and the prospects of social commerce.
Self-service and retail’s storevolution
Technological innovation has removed in-store barriers, promoting the self-checkout process. Furthermore, the customization of self-service terminals and the mapping of the shop interiors are excellent answers to the search for information on products and their location. This represents a dual benefit for those who buy and those who sell. The buyer will be able to avoid obligations and save time, while the seller will be able to direct him towards an engaging and profitable shopping journey.
Self-service retail proves to be an excellent means of attracting and retaining customers. By observing the path created directly by the buyer, it will be much easier to create campaigns and define the offer.
There is a constantly increasing number of buyers who link their preferences in the store to experiences made online, perhaps in direct relationship with the brand of interest. With the acceptance and integration of these experiences, technological innovation, when properly managed, allows the distributor to organize at best access and exploration of the point of sale, increasing, on the assumption of knowledge, the time spent by customers in the store and offering them additional services.
The interoperability with the web allows to manage orders and selections and supports the preparation of goods and informs the customer about the status and timing of shipping, collection and possible changes. With the adoption of lockers, the customer can collect the goods paid online without entering the store. Any orders with collection at the point of sale are automatically retrieved from the store check-out and paid at the various self-service or assisted points.
There are countless other opportunities: from the customer’s facial recognition for a ‘fast’ and ‘obstacle-free’ path, to self-scanning with smartphones, to the variety of possible forms of payment. Retailers who focus on the self-managed cycle will engage and maintain ever-higher shares of coexisting and migrating customers from e-commerce websites.
The desirable and the possible
The terms of the competition are very clear. For the retailer, technological innovation is not an opportunity but an essential factor. It has no point of arrival, it is a continuous cycle that originates from what is desirable by those who buy and aims at making attainable, as well as continuously improve it, and anticipate it when possible.
But with each delay, there is a penalty to pay, and the price can be worse than a simple loss of competitiveness. The driver of innovation is the desire of those who enter the store, technology is the means that can or, better, must turn it a reality.