As the world gradually recovers, the “next normal” will be a hybrid of old and new normals. This looming era will see businesses selectively apply the forced new perspectives of the past year, as survival-pressured tech adoption has allowed them to unearth operational discoveries.
One sector where this is already playing out is retail. Social distancing measures have forced hard pivots toward e-commerce, curbside pickup, and order-ahead. Companies that have leaned into these technologies are seeing big results, as seen in Walmart and Target’s blowout earnings.
But what about the post-Covid world? When we return to shopping in physical stores, will that look different? It’s hard to imagine as much much merchandise handling as before. Will it be a semi-touchless environment? And if so, which technologies will power that retail future?
Here are a few candidates.
1. AR Shopping Gets a Push
AR could come to the rescue in powering a new digitally fueled form of touchless shopping. AR’s inherent ability to contextualize real-world objects with graphical overlays could be a natural fit. That can be within store aisles or even at home — thus negating a trip to the store altogether.
This will include “try-before-you-buy” AR visualization like we examined yesterday, as well as visual search a la Google Lens. The latter contextualizes items you point your phone at, including metadata like product specs, reviews, promotional offers, and other useful shopping info.
It could even be simpler than Google’s advanced object recognition technology. Employing a more rudimentary form of marker-based AR, codes on product packaging or shelves could activate pre-authored animations (think: product demos, celebrity endorsements), or text-based info.
But it won’t be a silver bullet. AR will be one technology in a constellation of next-normal retail tools, including lower-tech standbys like disinfectant. Though you’ll still want to try on clothes and other items, digital overlays on products can at least minimize physical handling and interaction.
2. ‘Cashierless’ Retail Finally Arrives
Cashierless retail, à la Amazon Go, is a technology that’s aligned with Covid-era dynamics and demand signals. Being able to shop without check-out bottlenecks was previously all about convenience and the value of your time. Now we can add social distancing to its list of benefits.
In fact, a checkout aisle is the component of the in-store shopping experience that poses the greatest risk of physical congestion and interaction. Not only is it a physical bottleneck, but it also involves verbal communication and the biohazards of physical transactions (e.g., touchpads).
Cashierless retail so far has been trumpeted but tepidly adopted. But thrust will come from Amazon’s intent to position it as a “retail as a service” play. Just like it did with AWS, cashier-less retail is being spun out to transform operations for third parties who want to gain a logistical edge.
But now the impetus for retailers to adopt cashierless systems could be less about future-proofing and more about survival. This could pressure retailers into much-needed digital transformation, thus accelerating their evolution. If anyone could use that push, it’s the beleaguered retail sector.
3. Mobile Payments’ Time to Shine
If full-fledged cashierless systems are a stretch, what about good-old contactless mobile payments? This is a technology that’s experienced almost a decade of hype, as it’s failed to market tangible consumer value by playing more of a ‘tech-for-tech’s sake’ tune.
But there could be compelling reasons to adopt now (when the carrot fails, try the stick). Demand signals are already evident as we’ve examined. In a SYKES survey of 3,000 adults, 11 percent report using touchless payments like PayPal, Apple Pay, or Venmo for the first time in 2020.
37 percent of respondents to the same survey ordered groceries online for the first time. Twelve percent signed up for meal-kit services, and 10 percent (17% in the 18-24 age bracket) have subscribed to virtual fitness classes such as yoga, spinning, or others like them.
More importantly, the survey indicates sustained adoption of touchless tech and transactions. Forty-four percent of respondents aged 25 to 34 report that they’ll purchase more items digitally than they did pre-pandemic. Twelve percent will only use contactless payments going forward.
Auditioning for the Next Normal
One common thread in these touchless technologies is that they aren’t new. They’re existing technologies that were at various stages of their product lifecycles. But in the Covid era, they’re aligned with new-normal demand signals and are getting their chance to shine.
For example, AR had an existing growth curve and pace of traction. That has accelerated in several AR subsectors beyond retail shopping such as e-commerce, communications, enterprise collaboration, and new/native formats that could be born into this era.
And with all of the above technologies, a post-Covid world may slow their momentum if we in fact go back to “normal.” But it’s a question of consumer confidence levels. Have we been shaken in the Covid era to practice sustained distancing and other epidemiological best practices?
If so, all of the above technologies and others already support the new normal, which will soon transition into the next normal. That’s good news for these technologies, as their elevated traction and exposure may sustain. Until then, the current period is their audition for retail’s next era.