Future Stores webinar: retail in the time of coronavirus

Author: Sean Taylor

Back in December 2019, Panasonic partnered with WBR Insights to survey 100 heads of retail across Europe. The aim was to find out what challenges they faced in 2020 – and what their priorities and plans would be moving forward. The results were described in our Future Stores Benchmark Report, published early this year.

Obviously, no one was expecting a pandemic.

COVID-19 has since turned retail (and everything else) on its head. The figures, as we all know by now, are grim. Month-on-month, retail trade volume in the EU plunged by 10.1% in March and 11.1% in April. Here in the UK, 70% of non-food stores were closed during lockdown; Retail Economics estimates that these retailers may face a staggering 17% drop in sales over 2020 as a whole.

The Future Stores report (which you can download here) did not foresee such a tumultuous start to the 2020s. That said, several of its conclusions remain relevant, if in different ways than we expected. We highlighted these in our recent Future Stores webinar after talking to partners and clients in recent weeks. So what is still important to retailers – and what has now changed?

Post-lockdown takeaways

The customer experience is central to every sale made, and is crucial to repeat visits and purchases. Many retailers have therefore been looking at innovative technology to create highly personalised experiences. This will remain key post-pandemic – but there has been a shift in focus from added value to reassurance. As we have seen in grocery stores in past weeks, visible safety measures and reminders have taken centre stage.

Safety and security are perennials. However, the definition of a safe environment has now radically changed. Previously, theft prevention was often in the spotlight. Now, COVID-19 has forced retailers to have a rethink – for instance, they now have to consider store capacity limits, social-distancing markers, one-way flow, sneeze guards, and dedicated shopping hours for the vulnerable. To comply with latest government rules, they will be investing significantly in protection mechanisms in the near- to mid-term.

Personalisation was a key thread throughout the Future Stores report. The majority of survey respondents felt personalised digital marketing campaigns were the best way to drive in-store footfall. This remains true – but the content is now primarily on safety. Consumers are apprehensive about venturing out, and will need encouragement, as well as concrete information e.g. on current rules and product availability.

For bricks-and-mortar stores to have a future, they need to continue to shape themselves as must-visit destinations. This was true long before the pandemic. Yet with so much uncertainty, consumers’ needs are evolving extremely rapidly – and retailers will need to keep pace.

Consequently, innovative technology – from automating manual processes to boosting customer engagement – remains an investment priority in 2020 and beyond. These trends have only been accelerated in recent weeks, as I’ll come back to below.

Questions and thoughts raised during the webinar

Several interesting questions were raised by participants during the webinar.

Ultimately, how will the in-store shopping experience change post-COVID? Shopping has now become a personal strategy; for consumers, it is about deciding which shop will offer the fastest in-and-out, has the best stock, and has the highest standards of hygiene. Customers will focus on safety and convenience, and retailers will, in turn, concentrate their marketing on these messages. Put another way: retailers will need to make the shopping experience ultra-relevant and ultra-convenient.

We were also asked what tasks can and cannot be automated. In conversations with our customers, their priorities are solutions that make staff workload and scheduling easier, and enable greater communication with customers. Consequently, repetitive work should be automated, freeing up employees to focus on more value-added tasks – such as customer service.

Some existing tech can be repurposed. We looked at how in-store security contributes to increased visibility into in-store activity and movements. Video-based analytics allow retailers to glean much richer data from their stores. You can see into demographics, and how and where shoppers stop and linger. You can count the number of people coming in. And you can see whether they follow the one-way routes as marked, and whether distancing rules are being observed.

The role of tech in the COVID age

And that brings us to a more general question: what kind of tech is available to address COVID-19? To expand on some of the capabilities mentioned above, tech can help with capacity monitoring and queue management. Video in combination with intelligent analytics, sensors and signage, can count the number of guests in-store to comply with regulations. This can provide feedback for the queue outside the store, automatically telling customers when they must wait and when they can enter. At the same time, heat mapping can indicate people density and in-store flow. All this information can help retailers configure and maximise use of their floor space.

Stock detection can reduce the amount of time staff spend out on the shop floor. Fewer people clustered around shelves means greater safety. But these solutions also enhance efficiency and, to some degree, avoid negative out-of-stock experiences we saw in the wake of panic buying. Additionally, electronic shelf labels (ESLs) can be leveraged for messaging – e.g. reminding visitors to maintain social distancing. Today, this type of communication is more important than ever.

Panasonic has been leveraging its experience and expertise to adapt its own solutions to the challenges of a world with COVID. We will be highlighting these in greater detail in an upcoming blog post. In the meantime, if you are interested in finding out more, please feel free to contact us, or visit our website for more information.