From seamless to touchless: the metamorphosis of retail

Leveraging 3D virtual technology, Chairman of Mi Planets Pte Ltd, Mr Abu Bakar Mohamed Nor hopes to make the online shopping experience as close to physical as possible.
JUNE 15, 2020 - 2:32 PM

COVID-19 has taken a dramatic toll on many industries, most notably retail. Up until now, the retail industry flourished by ensuring higher footfall to boost sales. Today, however, retailers need to tackle the epic challenge of working — within curbs — to manage footfall, while meeting changing consumer demands. Will we ever again look at increasing footfall as a measure to boost sales? 

Unprecedented changes in consumer behavior require better strategies to navigate the new normal. For instance, apparel retailers are witnessing higher online sales in shirts and shorts as opposed to shirts and pants in response to the needs of the “always-on-video-call” executives.

When the stores reopen, retailers might even need to contemplate a reality where there will be no trial rooms. Home furnishings and home improvement retailers will see a major shift in demand, where consumers will require the type of furniture that enables them to balance personal and professional life at home. With such radical shifts, retailers should equip themselves with the right strategies and technologies to provide what consumers seek.

You can feel without touching 

Customer experience has generally been associated with in-store experiences such as leveraging attractive displays to drive impulse purchases, personalising product recommendations through in-person interactions, and allowing trials before the customer makes a purchase. These approaches have disappeared in an almost overnight turn of events, prompting retailers to embrace different strategies, such as touchless retail. Furthermore, physical stores will now turn into showrooms, providing aesthetic beauty and engagement, as opposed to being the ultimate place of purchase.

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Online consumers will be able to reap the benefits of an end-to-end in-store experience through immersive technologies. The products will eventually be delivered through drones, without the customer having to make any contact in the entire path-to-purchase journey. This will turn out to be the mainstream model for retail purchases in our current context.

Happy hours — no longer restricted to bars

Contactless retail has gained footing, helping retailers sell their products in a safe manner, and enabling consumers to buy them with the least human interaction. Online retailers are seeing contactless curbside pickup to be one of the best ways to get customers to buy products at this time. Once physical stores start to reopen, there will be a sudden increase in footfall, and retailers will begin to engage with customers in specific time windows, making “retail happy hours” the new normal. Nevertheless, for the most part, we will be operating in a world that embraces the after-effects of COVID-19, imbibing cautious retailing and health protocols. Therefore, it is imperative that retailers become adept in two key models: the online business model, and the touchless operating model.

As retailers go touchless, will privacy be the same?

In the wake of COVID-19, retailers have re-invented delivery models and can no longer ignore digital technologies, such as robotics, automation and IoT, as these have evolved from being optional, to becoming a mandate. In the new model of retail, Thailand’s largest retail player, Central Pattana has fortified the retail experience by following the five tenets of extra screening, social distancing, safety tracking, extra cleaning and touchless experience, all of which predominately leverage digital technology.

They have set standards through 75 new measures, incorporating elements such as touchless elevators and contactless payments, to name a few. While the benefits of touchless retail are many, it is important to note that these benefits come at the cost of consumer privacy. It would therefore be necessary to ensure that consumer privacy also evolves alongside the progress that we make in the touchless model.

A seamless online model is the clear winner

Across countries, the frequency and share of online spending, especially on food has been increasing by 16 – 70 per cent — and consumers indicate that they intend to continue shopping online at this new pace. Dairy Farm, a regional grocery retailer, has extended click-and-collect services to consumers in Singapore, enabling them to place online orders, and collect them during specified time slots. Since consumer slots have been near full capacity, Dairy Farm is also collaborating with ride-hailing companies such as Grab for flexible and scalable deliveries.

Luxury retailers, such as Bvlgari, have also launched ecommerce platforms in Singapore, which rely on 3D product images and Augmented Reality (AR) features, and are a safe and effective way to enable consumers to try on jewelry, watches and other categories of products. AR can also help physical stores such as cosmetics retailers sell product through virtual try-on services, enabling the consumer to experience a hygienic trial of the cosmetic product. 

The 3Es to go seamless and touchless

In order to go touchless, retailers need to ensure that a large part of their business functions online. This is possible only if retailers adopt the right strategy. To begin with, retailers need to “enable” their business to move online by choosing the right platform. Companies like AS Watson in Hong Kong have accelerated their digital plans, and invested in cloud technologies to handle the high volumes in online traffic.

Moreover, retailers will need to ensure that customers are “empowered” with the right information on products, and to make purchases through their preferred payment options. Lastly, retailers will also need to ensure continuous “engagement” by effectively leveraging mobile platforms, and employing the right content marketing strategies.

The way forward will favour the digitally bold

COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives, allowing for greater digital penetration. Retailers will have to prepare to meet the persistent increase in e-commerce penetration, and higher robotic automation in the coming time. The focus will be on creating resilient supply chains that leverage Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IoT, big data, and cloud computing, and delivery models will increasingly become contactless, using the power of robotics and drones. Self-healing supply chains and warehouses will become more commonplace.

Accordingly, the infrastructure will scale up to meet these needs. The world, as we know it now, will adjust itself to the new normal, and retail is not exempt. Retailers will now have to make the leap in adopting these technologies as a way of life. Going digitally bold is an assured way to reap benefits in the longer term and stay prepared for the future.


The writer is global delivery head, retail and consumer goods, at Cognizant