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Envisioning a more resilient retail landscape with more choices than ever

By Greg Kahn, CEO, Internet of Things Consortium

When the global pandemic drew an unexpected line in the retail sand, it divided the industry into essential and nonessential businesses and set off an unprecedented chain reaction that left many endangered and a handful intact but overwhelmed. 

Grocery stores, for example, experienced shortages from panic buying and couldn’t stock shelves fast enough. On the other hand, general merchandise retailers and pharmacies scrambled to add drivers and warehouse workers to meet the demand for home delivery. Long before COVID-19, however, physical stores had been struggling to increase foot traffic as consumers demonstrated a preference for the convenience and competitive pricing of online shopping. In fact, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that online sales—led by Amazon—narrowly beat general merchandise stores, including department stores, warehouse clubs and super-centers in February, officially overtaking brick and mortar for the first time ever. While it is still too soon to tell the fate of retail, major brands are wasting no time to launch new technology and take new approaches to refresh the industry—in and out of the pandemonium. Below are just a few examples:

Contactless payment

On April 4, 2020, Publix launched contactless pay to all its stores—more than 1200—as part of its commitment to protect the health and well-being of its customers and associates during the coronavirus pandemic. The digital tap-and-pay option augments its existing mobile pay option through the Publix app, which customers can still use to finalize their purchases. Slow to catch on in the U.S., contactless payments through Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc., have been wildly popular in the UK, Europe and Australia. But, with the fear of coronavirus spreading, Mastercard recently reported a 40% increase during the first quarter as the pandemic worsened. Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga attributes the shift to consumers “looking for a quick way to get in and out of stores without exchanging cash, touching terminals or anything else.” 

Robotics in retail 

Retailers like Amazon.com and Walmart are already using robots in their warehouses and retail stores to scan inventory, move merchandise and clean, but the high-tech Santa Monica, Calif.-based burger chain, Caliburger, is piloting the world’s first autonomous robotic kitchen assistant. Called Flippy, the robot is helping to increase quality and consistency of its products, as well as decrease wait times, improve food safety and enable its employees to spend more time servicing guests. Launched by Cali Group, a pioneer in developing innovative technologies for the restaurant and retail industries, the company is piloting Flippy at its Pasadena, California location and plans to expand the technology across its stores, which are located around the world. 

Try before you buy

For years, Behr has offered a virtual on-line color studio that allows customers and potential customers to upload photos of a room or exterior and see the results before applying even one dab of paint. With the help of augmented reality, other retailers followed suit, including IKEA—which offers shoppers the same experience, only with furniture—and beauty retailer Sephora, which has offered customers not only a virtual make-up option that uses AR to match their skin tone to a foundation but also a way to  sample a fragrance in store via a touchscreen and scented air. Today, with the fashion industry among the hardest-hit on the non-essential list, virtual try-on and digital technology could provide compelling use cases moving forward. Matthew Drinkwater, Head of Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) in London, states that COVID-19 is forcing brands to engage and experiment with immersive technologies, and they’ve been inundated with requests to bring virtual clothing, catwalks and showrooms to the public. The Fabricant, a digital fashion house leading the fashion industry towards a new sector of digital-only clothing, is already doing it by envisioning a future where “fashion transcends the physical body, and our digital identities permeate daily life to become the new reality.”

 Autonomous delivery 

Retailers have long been pushing toward new product delivery methods, testing autonomous vehicles and drones. But next month, the United Postal Service’s drone subsidiary—UPS Flight Forward—and the CVS pharmacy chain will begin delivering prescription medicines to The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community located in central Florida that’s home to more than 135,000 residents. The first to fly commercial drone deliveries outside the visual line of sight, and receiving full Part 135 certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, UPS Flight Forward and CVS will be authorized to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic and after it fades. Long-term plans include expanding drone delivery service to new hospitals and campus environments around the country and adding residential and commercial drone deliveries.

Telehealth and on-site clinics

Recognizing the impact on employees in the retail sector, brands hoping to beef up their emerging-from-COVID-19 strategies to ensure the health and wellbeing of their workforce can take cues from the early adopters. Walmart, for example, has been piloting a suite of new services as part of its 2020 healthcare plan, with offerings made available to associates in select markets including expanded telehealth, a quality provider resource, personal healthcare assistants and access to a nationwide fitness club. On a mission to help break the stigma around mental health, Starbucks announced in January the addition of Headspace to its suite of benefits and resources. Through a free subscription, partners have access to guided meditations for reducing stress and anxiety—and everything in between. Inspired by Mental Health First Aid, Starbucks is also providing dedicated training for all U.S. and Canada store managers, with a program designed by the National Council for Behavioral Health that aims to foster skills necessary to support someone in a crisis, whether it is related to a mental health issue or substance use and more. Recently, Lowe’s committed more than $250 million to support its associates and communities, extending its telemedicine benefit through Teladoc to all associates and their families, regardless of whether they are enrolled in Lowe’s medical plan.

It’s clear the retail landscape will never look the same—nor should it considering the fact that many retailers ended up in precarious situations. As protocols are put in place, mandatory masks for associates and customers are becoming more common, but AI-powered thermal body temperature sensing cameras may take over if the technology proves promising. Scanning for fevers in individuals can help identify the initial symptoms before an illness has a chance to spread.

Let’s hope the next time a line is drawn in the retail sand, it’s quickly washed away. With all that new technology has to offer, the industry has the potential to emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before, with more options for consumers and more ways to thrive in times of uncertainty. 

About the author

Greg Kahn

Greg Kahn is president and CEO of the Internet of Things Consortium (IoTC) and one of the most connected and engaged members of the Internet of Things (IoT) community. At the helm of IoTC NEXT: The Connected Future Summit, a first-of-its-kind industry event launched in 2019 in New York City, he is uniting foremost brand executives, leading technologists, investors and top media to address the challenges of a connected world.

With more than 20 years of experience working in the media and technology industries at well-established companies such as Viacom, Publicis Groupe and Omnicom, Greg established IoTC in 2016, using his influence and remarkable network to build a premier IoT group focused on driving the industry forward. Today, the pre-eminent business development association serves dozens of companies within the IoT space and covers five core areas of IoT including smart cities, home automation, wearables, connected cars and retail transformation, with a renowned roster of members including Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile, Mastercard, Ericsson, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, ADT Security, LG Electronics, Cox, Whirlpool, Bank of America, SwissRe and over 30  startups. 

Prior to IoTC, Greg served as Chief Business Development Officer for Meredith Corporation, the leading media and marketing company reaching 185 million American consumers every month. A top IoT advisor to startups, he is a regular keynote speaker and moderator at industry-leading events such as the Consumer Electronics Show, Mobile World Congress and Internet of Things World and has been named one of the Top IoT influencers by Huffington Post, Inc. Magazine, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and The Internet of Business. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Greg earned his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

About the Internet of Things Consortium 

The Internet of Things Consortium (IoTC) is the premier business development association for the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem. It is comprised of executives, leading founders and global companies in IoT. The IoTC’s mission is to ignite the growth of the IoT marketplace by leading the industry’s effort through strategic partnerships. The organization focuses on five key verticals: connected homes, autos, cities, retail and healthcare and wellness.