Retailers will be committing a blunder if they believe the lessons from the pandemic will not outlive the virus. They need to take on all such insights before the online learning curve becomes too steep. Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

During a time when external circumstances have disrupted operations and forced retailers to temporarily close their doors, the industry has had to re-imagine stores and make some difficult decisions.

For stores that remained open during the stay-at-home mandate, it meant having to enforce social distancing rules, rethinking traffic patterns and enabling self-checkout and contactless payment options. Retailers have also begun leveraging customer traffic solutions in their aisles to monitor distance, and digitize activities like customer metering.

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And many have simply chosen to install barriers in between cashiers and customers as an additional safety measure.

Corporate leadership needs to consider changes to their front-of-store operations and workflows to keep store associates and shoppers safe. Leaders also need to rethink some core business processes. This could include new ways of managing inventory and optimizing supply chains to increase efficiencies and keep pace with the shift to online ordering as well as an inevitable increase in returns.

Alternative shopping options, such as buy online and pick up in store (BOPIS) and curbside delivery have become consumers’ preferred shopping methods in recent months. Retailers’ distribution networks are coming under much greater pressure as they are handling significantly more items due to physical stores being removed from the network. New hired help

To help ease these challenges, retailers have started looking toward automation and robotics to optimise workflow operations by combining workers and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Despite the rise in retailers using co-bots (humans and robots working on shared tasks in harmony), the process has very much been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

AMRs enable warehouse operators to reallocate workforce and increase productivity across retailers’ distribution networks. Staff will always be an essential part of the customer experience, so they are very much here to stay.

Managing touchpoints

Minimizing physical touchpoints and increasing operational efficiencies will be just the start of the changes to come as retailers adapt to the needs of their front-line workers and shoppers. Improving worker collaboration and communications capabilities will also be prioritized as workflows adapt to social distancing guidelines.

Increasing online inventories and customer support will be a necessity as the industry begins to rebuild. Retailers without an online presence will need to create one and scale it quickly if they want to succeed.

For an industry that has gradually pursued technology adoption, there’s no doubt we will continue to see an increase in the utilization of innovative customer-facing solutions as stores adjust to the new way consumers want to shop. Technologies such as temperature monitoring solutions for both associates and customers, as well as ultraviolet (UV) cleaning solutions may be extremely popular in the year to come.

Longer term solutions that retailers should take a closer look at to see if it is right for their business include last-mile delivery automation, optimized order picking, contactless payment, frictionless checkout, ‘dark store’ order picking and micro-fulfillment. (Dark stores are essentially warehouses from where click-and-collect orders can be processed and handed over to the buyer.)

Dark stores and micro-fulfillment, in particular, hold potential for grocery retailers whose previous sales resulted largely from in-store purchases, but as a result of the pandemic have had to pivot to a much increased online presence.

Will decide the winners

In the short term, dark stores offer pickers the ability to fulfill orders safely and efficiently and can process order requests from multiple grocery stores. Micro-fulfillment offers the benefit of safe and efficient picking, and it also leverages existing real estate and still leaves the store open for shopper visits. We have learned there is a more than passing appreciation for ecommerce, and the various fulfillment options are here to stay.

The amount of in-store traffic also is anticipated to shrink more rapidly in the near-term, and retailers will learn to adjust and optimize labour. Although retailers will shift their strategies and incorporate new offerings, those who prioritize convenience and the customer experience will be the ones that earn the greatest loyalty.

- Mark Thomson is EMEA Director of Retail and Hospitality Solutions at Zebra Technologies.