Many industry experts believe that the digital transformation of retail has been accelerated by 3-5 years as retail companies try to keep pace with the demands of more digitally-conscious and pandemic-aware consumers.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the industry has seen a significant growth in digital transformations as retailers look to adapt operations to cope with social distance restrictions and behaviour changes that are reshaping consumer decisions journeys.

But even with the significant rise in online retail since the start of the pandemic, physical retail will not be forgotten and the use of technology will remain key for the survival of retailers in 2021. From robotic cleaners to AR fitting rooms and smarter checkouts, it’s all happening in retail.

1. Try before you buy – AR-enabled technology on track to create new retail realities
AR has been around for a while but as many consumers are still unable to freely shop in physical stores, RetailTech companies with AR and 3D technology solutions are benefiting from the demand for greater personalisation and customer engagement opportunities throughout the customer journey. Guided by the ‘try-before-you-buy’ approach, AR and 3D technologies are transforming digital shopping into a tangible experience, where consumers can interact with and visualise products in previously static touchpoints.

2. Online or in-store – digital loyalty programs will keep customers coming back
As more retailers move to online platforms and the lines between online and in-store shopping start to blur, retailers are now under increasing pressure to compete for customer attention and loyalty, which has created a great demand for RetailTech companies with digital loyalty solutions. Loyalty programs that allow customers to use points like currency, whether in real-time through digital wallets in apps or in-stores, are now helping retailers to make the consumer experience more rewarding, no matter where they shop.

3. Redefining the physical shopping experience in a contactless world
With increased hygiene and safety measures now a top priority in the era of social distancing, RetailTech startups that provide AI-powered smart checkout technology are helping to meet the rising consumer demand for frictionless and contactless in-store experiences. Smart checkout technology such as supermarket sat-nav and till-less scanning apps in particular are helping to address the latest hygiene concerns and take the ease of the customer experience into account.

4. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRS) will do the dirty work
The drive for cleanliness in retail is here to stay and as we move into 2021, retailers must look after the newly germ-conscious consumer. For RetailTech companies in autonomous mobile robotics (AMR), this has been their moment to shine. Disinfecting technologies that sanitize surfaces have helped to increase customer satisfaction in physical stores and will be key to encouraging the return of shoppers as COVID restrictions loosen.

5. Pandemic has driven logistics companies to go that extra mile
With COVID-19 creating a higher demand for online shopping, retailers are under more pressure to resolve the logistical challenges associated with the last mile – and many RetailTech startups are stepping up to the plate. Crowdsourced platforms such as AxleHire are seeing demand rise for their data analytics and predictive analytics technologies to optimize delivery routes based and help meet the demand for same-day or next-day delivery that customers now expect without impacting profitability for retailers.

Whether the future of stores looks dark or light, it is clear that retailers will need to embrace digital solutions to keep pace with the changing customer habits. Customers know what they want and will only engage with retailers that can meet their ever-evolving expectations and this is where established and startup RetailTech companies can prove their worth, even after social distancing comes to an end.

Hannah Watson is PR Account Executive at IBA International.

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