Samuel Mueller, CEO & Co-Founder at Scandit.
In-store shopping—reimagined and reinvigorated through the use of mobile technology—is making a big return in a shop near you. A swath of recent research confirms that consumers have emerged from the pandemic more digitally assured than ever and with an appetite for a safe and immersive retail experience.
Not surprisingly, the trend to shop online from the safety and comfort of home accelerated during the past 18 months. But brick and mortar stores held their own, too: Retail sales rose 6.9% over one year to $1.47 trillion in Q4 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Statistics. In parallel, PwC’s June 2021 Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey found that consumers have evolved to become more digital. Finally, the State of Consumer Behavior 2021 report found that 90% of consumers will return to a store if they have a positive experience.
The trio of findings points to a continuing desire to shop in-store in safe, contactless and digitally enriched ways, challenging brick-and-mortar retailers to reimagine the customer experience. Throughout the pandemic, resourceful retailers spun up contactless methods of letting in-store customers browse, order and pay for physical products. Enabling the smartphones in customers’ hands to digitally interact with product barcodes and QR codes created a safe, frictionless and effective means of omnichannel retail.
Now the pairing of smartphones with smart data capture capabilities, such as computer vision and augmented reality, promises to evolve shopping experiences further and helps retailers transform the in-store experience from a transactional to an experiential one for their customers.
For one company in Denmark, letting customers scan products with their smartphones, add items to their basket and then pay contactlessly in the app was just the starting point. Customers also use the app on their smartphones to access shopping lists, recipes, personalized discounts and track loyalty points.
In the high-value fashion and beauty space, the capability of the smartphone to make shopping experiential is potentially even more transformative. In an e-commerce-like manner, customers can access advice and product reviews easily and safely by a simple scan from the phone in their hand. Teamed with AR and AI, virtual try-ons of fashion items become simple and safe, shareable with friends and can be further personalized by in-app fashion makeover advice.
Visual configurator tools are today widely offered on websites for e-commerce fashion purchases, but history shows that consumers opt for mobile when given the choice. Even before Covid-19 spread around the world, enterprising retailers were playing in the “brick-and-mobile” space as a way to marry smartphone technology with in-store shopping: Augmented reality apps offering customers virtual try-ons or the ability to interact with display items proved an easy win.
For two years, fashion retailer Zara has let in-store shoppers view virtual images of models wearing different items from nearby displays using a mobile AR tool. U.S. fashion eyewear retailer Warby Parker is another advocate for blended physical and digital shopping. As well as offering virtual try-ons of spectacles from its website, Warby Parker offers customers the opportunity to virtually try out spectacle frames at its retail outlets from a mobile app.
Thanks to smartphones enabled by smart data capture, shopping in-store can be more social as well as more personalized as Chinese beauty brand B+Tube demonstrates. The retailer uses barcodes in its stores to trigger product tutorials from other customers—once a product has been purchased, customers are invited to upload their own tutorials. Post-pandemic, empowering customers to choose self-guided, efficient routes through busy stores, directed by their smartphones, is another easy win for retailers wishing to build trust.
Alongside satisfying safety concerns, blended shopping—integrating physical and digital—gives customers access to a wider choice. In Singapore, one sports retailer offers consumers an app with mobile barcode scanning capability, offering access to a broader catalog than otherwise possible in the store due to real estate constraints. Through the app, shoppers can access the entire online catalog and are able to order any item or alternative item variants (e.g., different sizes or colors of any given product) that aren’t physically displayed.
All of these examples offer individual cameos of blended shopping, but in its State of Fashion 2021 report, McKinsey urges retailers to “[implement] a truly omnichannel perspective on store operations.” In other words, it’s time for retailers to think holistically about the customer journey, both in-store and online, and to ensure the brand and experience are consistent throughout. Redesigning stores into places where customers safely arrive, buy—not browse—and leave is the new management priority and entails reconfiguring customer experience, staff roles and digital infrastructure.
Customers are mainly on the front foot with new in-store buying habits, but some shop floor employees may need coaxing to adapt to a post-Covid role of high-value sales consultant. The availability of digital augmentation allows retailers to rethink the role of store associates and move toward more personalized and human customer interactions. Taking action to bring store associates on board is an important early step: A majority of U.S. retail executives surveyed by VDC Research have begun retraining staff (74%) and communicating new in-store strategies (62%) to help this transition.
The final piece of the boardroom conversation around creating the immersive store is how to build a digital infrastructure that is open, flexible and scalable. Only this way can retailers pivot to operate throughout future crises and adapt to continually changing consumer behavior.
Brick-and-mortar stores that create memorable in-location experiences have everything to play for in the future retail landscape. Technologies like QR codes and barcodes found a new purpose in the age of social distancing when combined with smartphones—now, the duo is being harnessed to offer richer, immersive experiences. Retailers may fear that savvy online consumers have become fickle. In fact, digitally committed customers are returning in droves to the high streets and malls—and they’re seeking a mobile, sophisticated experience that keeps them engaged and safe.