3 Technologies to Support Retail’s Touchless Era

As the world gradually recovers, the “next normal” will be a hybrid of old and new realities. This looming era will see businesses selectively apply the forced new perspectives of the past six months, as survival-pressured tech adoption has allowed them to unearth operational discoveries.

One industry in which this is already playing out is retail. Social distancing measures have forced hard pivots toward e-commerce, curbside pickup, and order-ahead. Companies that have leaned into these technologies are seeing big results, as we recently examined in light of Walmart and Target earnings.

But what about the post-Covid hybrid world? When we return to shopping in physical stores, will that look different? It’s hard to imagine there will be as much much merchandise handling as before. Will it be a “touchless” environment? And if so, which technologies will power the touchless future?

Let’s dive into a few candidates.

Earnings Season Teases Retail’s Next Normal

1. ‘Cashierless’ Finally Gets its Day

Cashierless retail, à la Amazon Go, is a technology that’s inherently aligned with Covid-era dynamics and demand signals. Being able to shop without check-out aisle bottlenecks was previously all about convenience and the value of your time. Now we can add social distancing to its list of benefits.

In fact, a checkout aisle is the component of the in-store shopping experience that poses the greatest risk of physical congestion and interaction. Not only is it close quarters as a physical bottleneck, but it also involves verbal communication and the biohazards of physical transactions (e.g., touchpads).

Cashierless retail has erstwhile been trumpeted but tepidly adopted. As we’ve examined, Amazon is intent on positioning it within a “retail as a service” play. Just like it did with AWS, this internal asset is being spun out to transform operations for third parties who want to gain a logistical edge.

But now the impetus for retailers to adopt cashierless systems could be less about future-proofing and more about survival. This could pressure retailers into much-needed digital transformation, thus accelerating their evolution. If anyone could use that push, it’s probably the beleaguered retail sector.

Retail as a Service: Amazon Tips its Hand

2. Contactless Payments 

If full-fledged cashierless systems are a stretch, what about good-old contactless mobile payments? This is likewise a technology that’s experienced almost a decade of hype. As we’ve examined, the sector has failed to market tangible consumer value, playing more of a ‘tech-for-tech’s sake’ tune.

But there could be compelling reasons for the technology’s adoption now. When the carrot fails, try the stick. Demand signals are already evident in consumer data we’re tracking. In a recent SYKES survey of 3,000 adults, 11% report using touchless payments like PayPal, Apple Pay, or Venmo for the first time this year.

37% of respondents to the same survey ordered groceries online — including mobile — for the first time. Twelve percent signed up for meal-kit services since March, and 10% (17% in the 18-24 age bracket) have subscribed to virtual fitness classes such as Yoga, spinning, or others like them.

More importantly, the survey indicates sustained adoption of touchless tech and transactions. Forty-four percent of respondents aged 25 to 34 report that they’ll purchase more items digitally than they did pre-pandemic. Twelve percent will only use contactless payments going forward.

Mobile Payments: Does Local’s Holy Grail Have Holes?

3. Augmented Shopping

Another touchless agent is augmented reality. Due to virus transmission risk in merchandise, AR could come to the rescue in powering a new digitally fueled form of touchless shopping. AR’s inherent ability to contextualize real-world objects with graphical overlays could be a natural fit here.

This will involve a computer-vision-powered flavor of AR known as visual search. Demonstrated so far by tools like Google Lens, it contextualizes items you point your phone at. That can include metadata such as product specs, reviews, promotional offers, and other useful shopping info.

It could even be simpler than Google’s advanced object recognition technology. Employing a more rudimentary form of “marker-based AR,” codes on product packaging or shelves could activate pre-authored animations (think: product demos, celebrity endorsements), or text-based contextual info.

But it won’t be a panacea. AR will likely be one technology in a constellation of next-normal retail tools, including lower-tech standbys like disinfectant. Though you’ll still want to try on clothes and other items, digital overlays on products can at least minimize physical handling.

Is Google Building an “Internet of Places?”

Chance to Shine

One common thread in these touchless technologies is that they aren’t new. They’re existing technologies that were at various stages of their product lifecycles. But in the Covid era, they’re aligned with new-normal demand signals and are getting their chance to shine.

For example, AR had an existing growth curve and pace of traction underway. That has now accelerated in several AR subsectors beyond retail shopping such as e-commercecommunications, enterprise collaboration, and new/native formats that could be born into this era.

Panning back, all the technologies above already support the new normal, which will soon transition into the next normal. That’s good news for these technologies, as their elevated traction may be longer lived. Until then, the current period is their audition for retail’s next era.

Tags:
Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at www.mikebo.land