Can’t Touch This: How Retailers Are Carving Out a New, Contactless Retail Path

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COVID-19 has brought lockdowns, job losses and bankruptcies. However, it has also led to tech innovations, widespread tech adoption, and changing consumer mindsets. And the retail industry, already facing an e-commerce revolution, has had to change faster than anything else.

As lockdowns ease and nonessential physical stores slowly re-emerge from dormancy, it’s a good time to consider what the next phase of retail will look like — the new shopping for the new normal, if you will.

For one, we already know there’s no going back to business as usual. Customers won’t want to press on chip-and-pin pads, spend lots of time in-store, or even touch products as they remain in a safety-first mindset.


A Nod and a Wave

When we surveyed 1,000 U.S. consumers on what they would want in order to interact safely with products on the shelf, the results were eye-opening: 43 percent said they’d like to see more voice-activated solutions, a third would like to try out gesture- and motion-sensitive technology, and two-thirds would like to self-checkout, ideally on their mobile phone.

How you pay is a key anxiety point for consumers, and the obvious solution is contactless payment. Tap-and-pay and mobile pay were on the increase even before the pandemic: Mastercard recently reported a 40 percent increase in contactless payments during the first quarter of 2020 alone.

Unsurprisingly, PayPal has also brought forward the rollout of its QR code payments upgrade to support social distancing — safe, touchless and seamless within the omnichannel retail experience.

Another way that retailers can bypass shoppers’ hesitations to interact with their products in-store is to move away from button interactions, and transition to gesture- and motion-activated sensors. Automatic doors and switches are already the norm in places like Hong Kong, which faced the SARS epidemic.

On a broader level, in-store gesture controls allow for product exploration and discovery without the need to physically touch the products themselves, or any surrounding surfaces.


Speak Up and Feel the Heat

In addition, many consumers interact with smart home assistant devices on a daily basis, however, few retailers provide consumers with the opportunity to use these devices as a navigation assistant in-store. Voice-enabled interaction allows shoppers to discover products without assuming the health risk of touching contaminated surfaces, or coming in close contact with other individuals.

Our teams are particularly excited about the developments in heat mapping. Several years ago, Chinese mega app WeChat launched a feature that used real-time heat mapping to allow users to preview the density of crowds in a specific area so they could plan their visits to those locations.

That technology is now looking increasingly useful for the post-pandemic retail space, allowing retailers to help consumers navigate stores by avoiding overcrowded spaces, long wait times and the like. ASICS was considering implementing heat mapping last year in its U.S. stores, so it’s likely to become a reality sooner than you might think.


AR and VR

Goldman Sachs predicts that the global market for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in retail will reach $1.6 billion by 2025. While it’s currently driven in the main by gaming, the tech’s suitability for post-pandemic retail is catching a lot of attention.

AR and VR enable people to try on clothes, makeup, shoes, etc., without actually physically trying them on. Some retail brands are already dipping a toe in the water: take British fashion retailer Ted Baker’s digital pop-up store, Ted’s Bazaar. The pop-up uses a VR experience to offer the benefits of an engaging in-store shopping experience for customers who need to continue shielding.


Safe Retail

The pandemic has given birth to "safe retail" — the term encompasses technology that changed the next generation of shopper experiences in-store. It will be accessible across every consumer touchpoint throughout the store to provide peace of mind to shoppers.

We’re all now accustomed to antibacterial gels, disinfectant sprays and alcohol wipes in public spaces. These things are only a portion of what's available to the retail sector as it aims to sanitize all those frequently-used surfaces, from door handles, fitting rooms, clothing racks and hangers to shopping carts and shelves.

For example, health and temperature checks have already begun being implemented with retailers across the globe. Retailers have begun to offer temperature checks to both employees and customers, in a touchless manner and without the need for added staff involvement and resources.

Ultraviolet (UV) light has been proven to be extremely effective against pathogens like viruses and bacteria, including the airborne H1N1 influenza virus, and some stores and even brands like Amazon.com have begun applying this new sanitizing tech to their checkout process.

The more people become accustomed to these new shopping norms, the more they’ll embrace and expect tech innovation as part of the wider omnichannel retail experience. The overarching theme is using technology to replace the act of touch, to help customers who are still uncomfortable with their fingers brushing over the same product as dozens before them.

That, perhaps more than anything else, will be what differentiates the shopping experience of 2020 from 2019 — and stores will have to meet these new, contactless, safe retail expectations.