How Retailers can Leverage In-Store Technologies

Originally published in Retail and Restaurant Facility Business.

It’s hard to overstate how bad the problem is. According to research from Yelp, nearly 100,000 American businesses shuttered their doors during the first 6 months of the pandemic in 2020. A year later, the Wall Street Journal reported that 200,000 more businesses had closed than would have during “normal” times. There is no way to describe this other than cataclysmic. In a climate like this, it’s a wonder that any brick-and-mortar retailers survived. But it turns out that millions of retailers were actually able to keep their doors open during the pandemic, and it’s interesting to look at what enabled them to make it through 2 years of complete or total shutdowns. As it turns out, retailers that were able to create a positive customer experience, often driven by technology, were able to pull through.

The major advantage that online shopping has, of course, is convenience. There’s nothing simpler than picking up your phone or logging into your computer, hitting a button, and having a product show up at your front door a few days — or even a few hours — later. That has been the key selling point for remote shopping since the days of paper catalogues, and the internet has made it even easier for people to buy items from their own homes. But it is far from a perfect paradigm, and physical retailers are constantly looking for cracks in the armor to get customers back into their shops.

E-retail may be a good approach for buying fungible items such as razor blades, shampoo, or screwdrivers, but it doesn’t provide a great user experience for people shopping for more specialized items. For example, if you log into Instacart and request a T-bone steak, you won’t be able to choose which one you get because someone else is making your purchasing decisions for you — and there’s no software in the world that is going to let you look at the meat case and pick the exact item that you want. The same goes for clothes. You may see an item that looks great online, but you won’t really know how it fits or how it looks on you until it arrives at your house. That’s why return rates for digital apparel purchases are three times higher than returns for clothes that people buy in brick-and-mortar stores.

The In-Person Experience 2.0

Just about every shopper in the United States is a hybrid shopper, meaning that they make their purchases in physical stores as well as online. The goal for store owners is to tip the scales in their favor so that people will buy what they are selling in person. A winning way to do that is to create the best possible in-store experience so the customer is not only finding the products they want but also feeling good about making their purchases there. This is where technology can actually be an asset, rather than an adversary, for owners of brick-and-mortar stores.

For starters, customers need to have complete access to real-time inventory data. Shoppers who come into your store looking for a specific item want to see if it is available; if not, they will either find a competitor nearby or simply look for the product online. Shop staff must have instant access to this information on the floor so that they can provide a seamless experience and immediate help to customers. Home Depot does this very well, and any employee can tell customers if something is in stock without making them wait for 10 minutes as they rummage through a stockroom. The good news is that the ability to provide remote access to stock information is available to retailers of all sizes, not just big-box stores.

Another way that physical retailers can augment the quality of the customer experience is by eliminating one of the biggest frustrations that shoppers face: waiting in line. We’ve all had that amazing shopping experience quickly turn sour as five people ahead of us in line each unload dozens of items from their overflowing carts. Making people cool their heels for 10 or 15 minutes just for the privilege of giving you money is a really good technique to build up consumer resentment. The good news is that lines can be mitigated rather easily using technology. If you think about it, the simple act of taking a number at the deli counter is a great method to reduce frustration because people can mentally prepare themselves for their waits — or if they are in a rush, they can simply elect to leave and come back at a less busy time. That same principle can be applied to the entire checkout process.

There is no single, magic bullet that is going to help physical retailers reclaim the sizable chunk of business that online retailers have taken from them over the last two decades. But by leveraging new technologies, especially those that integrate with customers’ and employees’ mobile devices, forward-thinking merchants can use the digital revolution to their advantage to differentiate themselves from the impersonal experience of shopping online.