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CONNECTED RETAIL COMBATTING COVID-19 AND BEYOND: Drones, robotics and touch-free technologies are no longer a convenience but a necessity

There is no doubt the retail sector has been hit hard with the COVID-19 pandemic. Store closures have resulted in tremendous financial fallout, millions of workers have been laid off and many are worried about having enough supplies to get them through this crisis. But if we can step back for a moment, recalling Plato’s premise that necessity is the mother of invention, many industry leaders are forging ahead with innovative and touch-free technology—from delivery drones to robotics—to realize the potential of current and future innovation, filling critical gaps while ensuring the health and wellbeing of everyone. 

Consider the following, pre-COVID-19:

Physical retail, brick-and-mortar stores had long been struggling with the decline in foot traffic as consumers increasingly demonstrated a preference for the convenience and competitive pricing online shopping offers. A poll conducted by NPR and Marist College found that nearly 69% of US consumers have purchased an item online. This includes 43% who indicate they are regular online shoppers. Of those, 2% do so daily, 16% at least once a week and 25% at least once a month. 

To (partially) combat the consumer move to online shopping, retailers continue to innovate and experiment in physical stores. A pilot called “lunchbox” from Ahold Delhaize USA, for example, allows shoppers to check in via mobile app, shop, and walk out. Moreover, the Vitamin Shoppe is testing data-driven sampling using interactive digital kiosks, where products are placed in vending machines for shoppers to purchase and try out. 

And to improve the experience of self-checkout (Shekel Brainweigh reports that while nearly two-thirds of consumers frequently use these terminals at the grocery store, 75% stated difficulty with the technology), retailers have working toward developing a more frictionless experience. At the 2020 NRF (National Retail Federation) Big Show, numerous automated systems were featured—including a facial payment checkout system by Hisense, a mobile-based checkout-free system by UST Global, CloudPick, and RBS; and a facial ordering and payment system from NEC.

Retailers have also been pushing towards new product delivery methods, including Walmart’s test of grocery deliveries by autonomous vehicles in Texas, the delivery of medicine from Walgreens via drones by Alphabet’s Wing subsidiary and the air delivery of prescription medication by CVS via drones from United Parcel Service. Robotics in retail is continually pushing boundaries and integrating back-office operation with the shopping floor, as well. Walmart, for instance, currently has shelf-scanning inventory robots from Bossa Nova Robotics in 350 stores across the nation, with plans to introduce them in 650 more in the near future. 

Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, it is undeniable that weaknesses in current technology and the supply chain have been exposed. In places where stay-at-home mandates are strictly enforced, people are ordering online and relying on delivery to provide for basic necessities such as groceries. And we all know by now that, although stores are doing their best to keep shelves stocked, there are shortages causing many to search the internet. In my case, I tried five different grocery platforms and couldn’t get deliveries from any of them.

Before we get through this pandemic, we need to recognize that the retail world has to embrace innovation and test new strategies. And consumers must realize retail technology may not work to perfection. Yet, this is the time when collaboration is essential to create a retail environment that is more resilient. 

We are all wondering at a time like this what life will look like when we emerge in a post-COVID-19 world. Already, we are witnessing retailers mobilizing to deploy connected solutions, from the complex to simple. It is also worth noting, particularly for peace of mind, that in many states essential retail outlets will remain operational until further notice. This includes:

  • grocery stores including all food and beverage stores
  • pharmacies
  • convenience stores
  • farmer’s markets
  • gas stations
  • restaurants/bars (but only for take-out/delivery)
  • hardware and building material stores

If nothing else, consider these a lifeline until we can solve the challenges we are now facing. 

If history shows one important fact, it is that we have always survived. This is undeniably an unprecedented crisis that could permanently change the way we work and live. Yet, when this immediate threat subsides, be prepared for opportunities. They will abound.