Supporting retail’s revival with technology innovations


Supporting retail’s revival with technology innovations

Ned Hayes, SnowShoe CEO, explains that while consumers have irretrievably changed their shopping behaviors, presenting big challenges for retailers, there are many signs of hope on the horizon in the post-pandemic retail era.

 | by Ned Hayes

Last year, a COVID-19 tsunami swept through retail businesses, knocking down long-held consumer expectations and changing the face of in-person shopping entirely.

As the pandemic waters recede, many retailers are looking around at the altered landscape and trying to determine what changes come next. Consumer behavior has shifted, but there are signs of hope for retailers on the horizon.

COVID-19 changed retail forever

It is clear from reports like a recent McKinsey survey that consumers have irretrievably changed their shopping behaviors due to the pandemic. Around 40% of consumers switched brands, which is twice the level that took place from 2019 to 2020. We know however, that many of these changes likely happened out of necessity.

A few of these new habits may stay in place. Yet there are also emerging norms provoked by the pandemic that should give brick and mortar retailers hope for the future.

Retail boom is coming

It turns out that consumers are feeling optimistic about visiting retail stores in 2021. According to research from McKinsey, there’s a path to recovery already waiting in the wings.

U.S. consumers plan to make up for lost time with more than 50% planning to spend more this year. Extra spending will include not only typical retail purchases, but also “special treats” and splurges that lie outside the norm of typical retail expenditures. Higher-income millennials plan to spend the most, and as vaccinations expand to Gen Z, these trends will also likely apply to that generation.

Loyalty matters

When shoppers return, according to researchers at CGS, consumers will crave more human connection from service people. Consumers have been missing out on the micro interactions that come with in-person experiences and brick and mortar retail stores have a real opportunity to capitalize on this expectation to create amazing in-person interactions for shoppers this year. This is the perfect time for businesses to re-energize their loyalty programs to encourage regular in-store shopping and ongoing retail engagement.

First, it is important to remember that loyalty programs work. Recent research shows that consumers are more likely to do business with a store that has a loyalty program. Furthermore, highly engaged customers buy 90% more often and spend 60% more per transaction. This higher frequency of larger purchases can lead to a big increase in profits. For example, just a 5% uptick in customer loyalty can boost profits as much as 95%.

But how do you make a loyalty program work when you can’t use a stamp card or an in-person check-in? What do you do when you want to support loyalty, but your consumers avoid a service person’s gentle inquiries, don’t enjoy in-person interactions or are no longer browsing at length?

Going hands-free

During the past decade, future-looking retailers have explored touchless interactions in retail. It’s not only innovative Amazon Go stores that have imagined a future without sales people, check-out kiosks or multiple hands touching every piece of produce. Walmart has also looked into contactless options.

With the advent of COVID-19, many of these new technologies were used for safer in-person shopping practices. The goal is to allow customers to use smartphones to verify their physical presence, opt-in to e-coupons, or redeem loyalty points. Retail staff no longer need to touch credit cards or hold a hand-held scanner at a register.

Historically, retailers who use these technologies have discovered broad acceptance. Even though customers enjoy human interaction, consumer loyalty can actually increase when technology is employed to foster further loyalty. After all, 79% of consumers are more likely to join a rewards program that doesn’t require them to carry a physical card.

Here are some leading technologies that are enabling consumers to shop safely and retain loyalty to their favorite stores.

Camera-driven check-out
Amazon is leading the way with a unique new approach to retail that uses ubiquitous cameras and a weight sensor system. The Amazon-style system captures every consumer’s action inside the store and deploys computer vision algorithms to determine which consumer has picked up which item. Once a consumer leaves the store, the items are billed to their virtual cart. Other retailers such as CVS, Walmart and Costco are also exploring computer vision technologies for touchless retail.

Consumer scanning
In other stores, consumers can simply pick up and scan their own items, by placing the bar codes against a laser scanner. This is similar to the self-checkout process available in many grocery stores today. In another example, Starbucks allows consumers to scan their own rewards points and stationary check-in devices for consumers look viable for many future retailers.

Digital stamp cards
For years, many stores provided a paper card on which retailers could “stamp” loyalty points or punch out a point for each visit. This style of loyalty program was incredibly effective. Today, many of these same stores are replicating this interaction using a digital stamp application on the consumer’s smartphone. The technology to support new types of digital stamps ranges from SMS interactions to scanning QR codes and unique capacitive touchscreen “Spark” technology.

Near-field communication
NFC is a technology that provides a short-range radio transmission of data between a store and a consumer. Exchange of information can include loyalty points, virtual check-ins, coupons and even transactions. Before deploying, it’s worth noting that NFC has documented security concerns, which could make some monetary transactions problematic.

Technology supports service
Technology is not a substitute for a direct relationship with a customer. Nothing replaces a friendly smile, a kind comment or a thoughtful suggestion about an item that complements a chosen purchase.

Research demonstrates customers crave these real interactions.

However, if you use it judiciously and with care, the technology options outlined can support and enhance your existing customer relationships and help your retail business to revive and thrive as COVID-10 recedes from our shores.

Ned Hayes is CEO of SnowShoe