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- Automated in-store shopping
- A promising future for drone delivery
- Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Unmanned Robot Deliveries
- Developing tech-enabled platforms and systems
With the worldwide spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown, retail stores have witnessed a huge dip in footfall and revenue. India has over 15 lakh modern retail stores employing more than 60 lakhs (6 million) people. The eCommerce industry observed a spike in the orders on almost all the platforms but these platforms are facing their own problems from sourcing to delivering the items.
Automation solutions for retail operations are quietly securing a bigger place for itself in the post lockdown world. The benefits of retail automation are two-fold – it serves the purpose of providing a more personalized experience and reducing the operational costs for retailers.
In this article, we will highlight a few cool technologies that will have a bigger role to play as we ease back to our world with lesser lockdown restrictions.
The post-lockdown world will pose a lot of challenges for retailers as the lifestyle of the people around the world is expected to undergo a major makeover. People are already more concerned about hygiene and safety, and social distancing is not just going to be a textbook term in the future. Even during the lockdown, permitted retailers are trying to minimize human contact. Automation reduces the human intervention in the supply chain of businesses and the shopping journey of customers.
Automated in-store Shopping
Amazon has opened a store outside of Seattle and named it Amazon Go where almost all of the aforesaid five processes are automated. Customers can just walk in the store and walk out with whatever items they want and they will be charged to their Amazon Prime account. This solves one of the biggest problems for the customers – waiting in queues for checkout. The store uses sensors, cameras, AI and computer vision to automate the purchase process substituting the need for cashiers.
BingoBox, a Chinese company uses RFID technology by labelling its products with RFID tags wherein customers need to scan their products at the exit in a standardized self-check-out kiosk and then pay for it using WeChat, a messaging app for China like its global counterpart WhatsApp.
Google launched the first home delivery drone service in Australia. Amazon could only be months away from using drones to deliver packages to customers.
Some other solutions would be having more vending machines, automated kiosks, and self-checkout kiosks that will reduce the waiting time for customers and speed up the check-out process. All these solutions need to be backed by automation of operational functions such as automated order management or automated inventory management systems.
A Promising Future for Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)
Also when it comes to delivery and distribution of goods, there are problems not only from the customers’ side but getting the delivery partners on board in the situation of lockdown is also one of the challenges.
Drone delivery offers a promising future for distribution and delivery. One of the test cases is a healthcare startup Zipline. Zipline was founded in 2014 in California. It delivers essential medical supplies to the hospitals and clinics in Ghana and Rwanda. They have 6 distribution hubs or centres each with a fleet size of 30 drones and each hub with a coverage area of 8,000 square miles or 20,720 square kilometres.
Google is also taking initiatives in the business of delivery by drones through its sister company Wing Aviation. Last year, Wing Aviation and FedEx partnered to carry out a drone trial to demonstrate the benefits of using drones as a last-mile delivery service. As of April 2020, Wing Aviation has also witnessed increased service demand in anticipation of the company’s partnership with Christiansburg’s Mockingbird Cafe & Bakery and Brugh Coffee.
Amazon recently hired ex-Boeing 787 program VP, David Carbon, as the VP of Amazon Prime Air program to oversee the company’s project which aims to safely deliver packages to customers in less than 30 minutes.
Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
As we ease back to our world and to our personal and business routines, the significance of AI will be higher than what it was when we entered the COVID crisis. Retail is one industry that will feel this pinch stronger. Why? Because in the near future we may have to significantly alter the supply chain and distribution systems of the retail industry towards making them more intelligent and sensitive to human priorities.
A good and relevant example here would be the use of AI-powered spatial analytics by Walgreen to track flu activity across the U.S. which not only enhances customers’ awareness but also helps the company better manage its inventory.
Unmanned Robot Deliveries
Chinese eCommerce giant JD (Jingdong) also did not lose out on the opportunity to serve the customers and compete with Alibaba. The company used autonomous vehicles to deliver goods in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 virus. The loading the vehicle is a manual process but from thereon the autonomous vehicle delivers the goods.
In December 2019, Wal-Mart partnered with Nuro, an autonomous vehicle company, to test-drive autonomous grocery deliveries through a project to be based in Houston.
Developing Tech-enabled Platforms and Systems
Retailers are tackling many challenges during the lockdown and may continue with what they have been doing to maintain their relationship with their customers.
Big Bazaar in India is a multi-channel retail giant. Before the crisis, customers usually preferred buying from the stores. However, with the lockdown in place, the trends have changed sides. And to cope up with that, Big Bazaar has used their social media handles and text messaging feature to reach out to customers and have enabled home delivery of items.
Other retailers and eCommerce players are also experiencing the same trend. Many brick and mortar shops (essentials) have started using WhatsApp to take orders from their customers. Others have tied up with permitted delivery partners.
To make things possible in these trying times, Shopify has come up with an innovative concept of “Buy Online, Pickup Curbside” where customers can order and pay online and collect the order from the storefront or ‘curb’ without the need to leave their car. The retailers will get the order on email and they will reply with the time at which customers can come to collect the order. This eliminates or reduces human contact and is very practical and cost-effective. The retailers need not even buy a domain initially and can enjoy a 90-day free trial.
The COVID crisis has surely changed our priorities as customers and as businesses.
For customers, the definition of essentials may already have been rewritten. Our priorities have expanded to include enhanced safety and security, not just in terms of product quality, but also in terms of delivery, distribution, and preparedness for the future. For retail companies, there will be a shift of focus from ‘what customers want’ to ‘how to deliver’ and ‘how to be better prepared’.
The new systems will have to be agile so that they can reform themselves in the event of any future crisis.
Your Retail Coach (YRC) is a retail consulting and outsourcing company in India offering a wide range of services in retail offline, retail eCommerce and retail omnichannel catering to a multitude of industries.