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Retail in the post-COVID world

Zebra Technologies’ APAC Vertical Solutions lead of healthcare and retail discuss what the future holds for retail in a post-pandemic world.

Millions of stores around the world had to close when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. People lost their jobs, and the economy slowed down. As months passed, countries slowly recovered but are still reeling from the aftershock it left behind.

Cautiously, stores opened and people returned to their jobs but life as we know it will be different. Governments are slowly lifting restrictions and people can now go out, eat, and shop but in a limited manner.

“Retail is one of the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with brick-and-mortar retail stores shuttering all over the world, as consumers increasingly turn to online shopping in view of lockdowns and social distancing measures,” George Pepes, Zebra Technologies’ APAC Vertical Solutions lead of healthcare and retail, said in an interview with Retail Asia.

The demand for online shopping has spiked rapidly and consumer behaviour drastically changed during the past six months. Retail stores that had incorporated an online store or adapted quickly to the shift from physical shopping to online experience have seen a notable increase in demand and revenue.

Pepes cited the 300% increase in online orders at online supermarket RedMart and the nearly tripling of parcel volume in express delivery service Ninja Van as examples.

“Digital paths to purchasing have increased. In the new normal, we will likely see customers continue to expect the exceptional experiences, whether they are shopping at brick-and-mortar retail stores, or online. The abundance of information and choice will accentuate consumer repertoire behaviour,” he added.

Capitalising technology

Some would say that the pandemic brought about the age of online shopping. The pandemic forced people to stay at home, but due to the acceleration of digitisation and adoption of technology, consumers were able to continue to buy goods online.

A survey conducted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and Netcomm Suisse eCommerce Association, in collaboration with the Brazilian Network Information Center (NIC.br) and Inveon, shows that online purchases have increased by 6% to 10% across most product categories during the pandemic.

Pepes argued that although the pandemic accelerated digitisation, it only acted as a booster for the boom in online shopping.

Before the onset of COVID-19, the Zebra 2020 APAC Shopper Study already showed an upward trajectory of people who will shop online for the next five years which stands true for most of the Asia Pacific region with 40% of consumers preferring to make purchases via their mobile devices.

“In fact, the ASEAN region was already considered the next gold rush for e-commerce, due to its population of almost 650 million and the highest internet penetration rate in Asia Pacific. Therefore, the pandemic merely accelerated e-commerce adoption, with numerous customers switching to online grocery delivery platforms, click-and-collect models, and curbside collection,” Pepes added.

This is good news for retailers who have already started their online platform for their customers.

Pepes said that retailers should focus on delivering a seamless, multi-channel experience that customers expect by adopting the right technology to provide more personalised services for managing inventory and building smarter operations.

The right technological application does not only make customer experience fun, but it can also help better improve retailer operation workflows.

As of now, consumers are wary about their health and government advisories tell them to still maintain social distancing even as restrictions are slowly being lifted.

“Retailers are now rushing to deploy self-service scanning devices, mobile computers, and mobile point-of-sale (mPOS) solutions. These technologies will reduce shopper’s queuing time as they no longer need to go to staffed checkouts,” Pepes said.

Pepes also suggested that visibility solutions, such as radio-frequency identification or RFID location solutions, could help guide store associates with mobile devices to find products in store in the shortest amount of time as well as find misplaced or seemingly out-of-stock items.

“These inventory optimisation solutions ensure accurate inventory counts and visibility so that shoppers can always get the product they want, thereby driving improved sales and profitability for retailers,” Pepes explained.

With these game changers, having both contactless and frictionless shopping experience for consumers is made possible.

APAC’s retail future

Pepes predicts that in the near future, the post-COVID retail landscape in APAC will see a number of retailers embarking on an accelerated digital transformation journey.

Prescriptive analytics will have a widespread traction amongst retailers due to its ability to intelligently analyse what is happening across the supply chain at that very moment, interpret why it is happening, and respond in real time to resolve the issue.

Retailers will soon realise that shopping experience and technology are linked especially in the post-pandemic landscape where customers expectations of how technology is woven into their shopping experience will be a key focus and point of differentiation for retailers.

With the current climate, Pepes notes that the most important challenge that retailers face now is the maintenance of inventory accuracy as they strive to avoid out of stock situations due to the sudden and rapid growth of e-commerce. To overcome this, retailers must adopt the right technology.

“As such, it is critical for retailers to quickly pivot their operations to remain relevant. With stores closing down during lockdown periods, several retailers transformed their physical stores into local fulfilment stores, to fulfil delivery and pickup orders, and keep up with the increased demand for online shopping,” Pepes said.

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