To say these are interesting times for the retail sector would be an understatement. COVID-19 has created a dichotomy the likes of which we've never seen before. On the one hand, a large percentage of retailers have closed up shop temporarily either in response to regulatory mandates, or due to dwindling customer foot-traffic. And on the other hand, a number of retailers remain open for business and under great strain as nearly all remaining retail traffic is funneled to grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and big-box retailers considered to be essential in the eyes of regulators.
The few times I've ventured out to go shopping lately, I've been impressed how these essential retailers are responding. They're controlling when customers enter the store to make it easier for shoppers to maintain an appropriate social distance; they're disinfecting baskets and carts before handing them off to customers; and they're doing a remarkable job of restocking frequently to ensure products are available when customers need them. Naturally there are exceptions and some everyday staples are still hard to come by, but those are the exception and not the rule.
Projecting ahead as I often do, I'm taking stock of the current retail environment and I wonder how shopper behavior will evolve over time in response to this current situation. Hopefully the collective sacrifices we're making today will yield a positive result and someday in the not-so-distant future the retail industry will return to normal. But what will normal look like in a post-COVID-19 world?
In the same way 9/11 brought about lasting changes to the travel industry, I believe COVID-19 will do the same for retail. The question is how.
Until there's better treatment options and perhaps a vaccine for COVID-19, retailers will be expected (and probably required) to provide shopping environments that minimize the spread of pathogens in-store. Distancing employee and customer interaction is likely to continue in some way. But I believe bigger changes are afoot - monumental shifts in how retailers merchandise to customers and execute transactions.
Technology will drive this evolution. Big changes were already underway even before the COVID-19 crisis emerged. For example, Amazon recently opened Amazon Go Grocery, a grocery store in Seattle that eliminates checkout from the shopping experience - customers simply shop, grab items off the shelf, and walk out. It's a great model and one I expect will gain mainstream acceptance in the years to come.
But in the context of pathogen spread, eliminating checkout does very little to reduce risk. The customer still touches every item they place in their cart, with no way of knowing how many other customers might have touched that same product beforehand.
So taking the Amazon Go Grocery model one step further, I think we'll start to see a rise in not just check-out free shopping, but touch-free shopping. Technologies like RFID and Bluetooth provide a seamless mobile handoff that transfers content to a shopper's mobile phone without ever coming into direct contact with anything in-store. QR codes and bar codes can be scanned to similarly send information to shoppers' phones. Not only do these scenarios eliminate physical interaction with on-shelf products, they also make it possible for customers to complete transactions on their mobile devices and ship directly to their homes. This evolution of the omnichannel shopping experience - which was already underway prior to the emergence of COVID-19 - will accelerate as retailers invest in experiences that reduce the need for physical interaction in-store.
The technology to create this sort of shopping experience already exists - it has for years. But until now, the mass market hasn't demanded it. But times are changing. I feel a groundswell of demand for these and other tech-driven retail solutions that reduce or eliminate in-store physical contact.
You can bet that the brightest minds in retail are putting their heads together to prepare their businesses to not just survive, but to thrive in the aftermath of COVID-19. The rules of retail are changing as we speak, and we must rise to the challenge to emerge from this chaos with innovative shopper solutions to reinvigorate the retail sector following this challenging time.