HIGH POINT – Following a year spent online shopping, working and socializing by many consumers, many retailers and tech providers are going into 2021 with big predictions for how technology may impact the retail industry in 2021.
In a discussion on the future of retail technology and how COVID-19 changed everything during the National Retail Federation’s annual retail conference NRF 2021, moderator Christ Walton, CEO and founder of Omni Talk, called 2020 a “groundbreaking” year for tech and retail.
“Things very rapidly changed in 2020,” commented Philippe Bottine, CEO North America of SES-imagotag, an electronic shelf-labeling systems company. “We saw some big shifts in the way shoppers were spending and consuming, and all that resulted in a big increase in e-commerce spends for retailers. … We saw nearly a 10-year acceleration in e-commerce in just the matter of a few weeks.”
Keith Mercier, general manager of WW retail and consumer goods for Microsoft, agreed. “What we’re seeing globally is that COVID is the new chief innovation officer in the retail industry,” he noted.
From his perspective, COVID-19 changed the role of the store forever, colliding the front and back of house and turning every retail store into a kind of fulfillment center.
“It’s now a customer experience center, it’s a warehouse, it’s a logistics node,” Mercier elaborated. “It has just forever changed, and it’s probably going to stay that way.”
It has also changed the shopper journey, Mercier said, with the proliferation of things like curbside pickup dramatically increasing the number of people of begin purchases online before ending them at stores. Many have also just completely turned to completing purchases online.
And that, according to Bottine, stressed both the supply chain and retail workers in 2020.
“It’s put a huge strain on supply chain and stores to be able to adapt as quickly as possible to this new environment. It also put a lot of stress and constraints on those front line workers,” said Bottine. “They became new heroes in order to ensure safety in stores and keep serving clients while learning new e-commerce practices.”
Bottine noted that new technology to meet these problems in 2020 have had to focus on accuracy, especially on the inventory side as more online shopping is being done, and needed to be focused on eliminating distractions from workers, especially as they learn to take on new tasks.
Things such as SES-imagotag’s digital price labels work well in these scenarios, Bottine said, because it eliminates the need for workers to manually change individual price labels, and it allows stores to more quickly and frequently discount product, making it easier to compete with the constantly changing prices found online.
“Stores have increasingly become fulfillment centers in addition to being stores,” said Bottine. “In order to be a efficient at being a fulfillment center you have to be very precise in your execution, in your merchandising. You need to have the proper inventories permanently on shelves and to be sure that customers can find things easily and so whatever associates are looking for can be found easily. It’s a double threat.”
After observing such a rapid year of retail tech changes, Bottine and Mercier had the following predictions for retail and retail technology in 2021:
- Supply chain technologies that can reduce the distance the between shopper and manufacturer will be key.
- Retailers cannot rely on outdated information anymore as their online ordering grows, so tech that allows for precision merchandising at the edge will be important to retailer success.
- Consumers are generating tons of data right now through online shopping, browsing, etc. Any technology that allows retailers to collect and quantify that information will help retailers succeed this year.
- Retailers will need to embrace re-imagining stores both digitally and physically. If customers want curbside pickup and that has never been offered before, do not hesitate.
- And, finally, retailers will need to find new ways to empower their employees. Give workers the right tools and tech to make good decisions with an eye towards efficiency and cost, especially as continue to navigate the changing retail landscape alongside their employers.