There’s lots of talk in 2020 about businesses transitioning toward online-only operations. With so many companies having had to shut the doors of their brick-and-mortar stores, this is an understandable subject to focus on. As vital as online business has been to many of these companies though, many of them are also hoping to make successful returns to in-person activity.
Whether this can happen now or in the near future, one thing we know is that brick-and-mortar businesses will need to reopen with new practices and policies in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There will have to be new measures taken to keep customers safe, and in large part they figure to be driven by technology. To that point, we’re going to discuss three important examples of how businesses can use in-store tech to keep customers safe and comfortable, and help move the COVID recovery forward.
Scan, Pay & Go
The rise of mobile scan-and-go technology actually began a number of years ago as a pure matter of convenience. Thought of as an evolution of barcode and self-checkout technologies, it was simply the practice of allowing shoppers to scan items on their own as they shopped. This was initially done by way of handheld scanning machines, but the same concept is now feasible via smartphone.
Our phones are capable of recognizing barcodes, RFID tags and similar scanning images and mechanisms. Thus, the technology is now there to allow people to enter stores, shop for items, make purchases via smartphone and leave — all without ever “checking out” in any traditional sense.
Again, this technology initially emerged for the sake of convenience. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic though, it will likely prove to be an essential technology for many stores. Lots of consumers are going to be uncomfortable with the idea of waiting in a line or having close contact during a checkout, and scan, pay-and-go tech can address those concerns.
When we looked at post-COVID-19 retail strategies before, one of the key points was “if they can’t find it, they can’t buy it.” This point spoke to the need for online retailers to make their products clearly visible and distinguishable. But it will also be important for brick-and-mortar stores to make it easy for customers to navigate and find products quickly — so that they don’t feel they’re exposed longer than they need to be.
This is doable through the use of highly capable printed circuit boards fitted for wireless communication and built into what are often called “beacons.” The antenna designs in PCBs today are made with high-speed wireless technology and Bluetooth devices in mind. This means that even the smallest of circuit boards can now have powerful antennae capable of reaching out and interacting with Bluetooth devices — such as shoppers’ phones and wearable devices.
What this means for stores is that beacons equipped with this technology can be used to communicate with customers and make stores more navigable. A beacon can send a message to a receptive phone and start an automated dialogue that helps direct the customer toward the products he or she wants. It can significantly expedite a no-contact shopping experience.
Virtual Fitting Rooms
Like the other technologies described here, virtual fitting rooms were also around before the pandemic. The concept basically emerged alongside augmented and virtual reality, and was one of the more intriguing applications for those technologies early on. While it can work in slightly different ways, the general idea is that customers in stores can look at vaguely mirror-like screens and see themselves wearing different accessories and articles of clothing. In many cases, it can negate the need to try things on in person.
We have actually begun to hear about the emergence of virtual fitting rooms for home shopping as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. With their own devices, home shoppers can “try on” products and then decide whether or not to purchase them online.
And the numbers indicate that this actually results in a significantly lower frequency of returns. However, it’s something we expect to see more of in stores as well. Customers are likely to be less inclined to try on clothes that they worry others might have recently tried on; they also won't be keen on passing items back and forth between employees helping them make decisions. Virtual fitting options in stores will address these concerns and speed up the shopping process at once.
In the end, the return to in-person shopping is likely going to feel strange to business owners, store employees and consumers alike. There are going to be adjustments and new practices we don’t necessarily foresee now. But there’s a very good chance that these technologies in particular will be important to stores recovering from COVID.
Danielle Peters is a freelance writer and with a passion for technology. She has spent the last seven years covering the latest tech trends and traveling the country reporting on tech conventions.