Thursday, 22nd October 2020

Social distancing in retail: pushed to the edge

By Johan Pellicaan, Vice President & Managing Director at Scale Computing.

For better or worse, non-essential businesses in the UK reopened on Monday 15th June, after the UK economy took a record hit with a GDP crash of 20.4% in April. This was met with masses of shoppers descending on centres like Bicester Village, and Primark stores across the country, enabled by the more recent decrease in the social distancing rule from two metres to one metre. Yet, with the situation around COVID-19 remaining uncertain and unpredictable, it is likely that strict social distancing measures will be in place for the foreseeable future, meaning the retail landscape will be extremely different to how it was before.

Digital transformation has already been impacting almost every industry, with retail as no exception. Traditional retailers were already facing an existential threat from the plethora of online shopping brands that have transformed the consumer landscape, not aided by the pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdown measures. Consumers now expect a quick, easy, and convenient way of shopping, and online retailers have delivered. Aside from the inherent advantages of online versus traditional stores, internet retailers are effectively two steps ahead because the very nature of their digital operations drives continual IT transformation.

Now with the added pressure of COVID-19, where contact and the number of people in-store will be limited, retailers with an online presence are not only able to cater to consumers’ differing preferences for how they want to shop, but they are much better placed to meet with societal restrictions around COVID-19 now and into the future. Right now is more important than ever for retailers to utilise technology to help drive engagement, while keeping customers safe. So, what can high street retailers do to stay competitive?

Safety first...

High street retailers need to have reliable, robust, and scalable IT systems in place to make sure the retail experience runs smoothly. For instance, in peak sales the last thing that retailers or their customers want is a disrupted service, so it’s important to have a modern and simplified platform that can reliably meet demand. In addition, most retail outlets will now have limited on-site staff in order to comply with restrictions, so it is crucial that any underpinning technology is simple, easy to use and can be deployed remotely.

This is where edge technology can play a vital role for retailers. Not only can it solve many of their IT challenges, it can also enable retailers to evolve by utilising data for business intelligence. While online retailers naturally gain data insights, they don’t have as much opportunity to interact with customers as traditional shops. With edge computing, traditional retailers can close the gap on their online rivals and turn their personal customer contact into a data-driven advantage.

For example, in high street retail, connected edge devices can report how many times customers enter a building, as well as what they looked at and for how long. While traditionally this will have helped boost sales, in our ‘new normal’ this can also act as a safety precaution to monitor the number of people in the building. It also becomes possible to track a customer’s journey through the store, to see the path they are most likely to take and what caught their attention. With this technology in place, businesses have the opportunity to substantially increase the efficiency of the shop floor layout.

While keeping the experience engaging

Connected edge devices can also enhance the direct customer experience with the ability to confirm the availability of specific items in-store. Edge technology allows for personalised adverts and intelligent shelf labels, and can also be used to remove some of the more mundane daily tasks while improving accuracy, such as monitoring fridge and freezer temperatures to automatically adjust and preserve food. Furthermore, edge-enabled technologies such as smart mirrors, where customers can virtually ‘try on’ clothes, for example, where once not more than a fun shopping experience, now provide a route for necessary hygiene precautions to be met.

That said, all of this needs to be cost-effective and simple to manage and implement. As the UK economy continues to feel the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the last thing retailers want is for the cost of new technologies such as these to outweigh the benefits. Edge computing is a game-changing technology, and if it is implemented through an on-site, scalable, cost-effective and easy-to-manage appliance, retailers can take full advantage of these benefits.

For high street retailers still looking to maintain an enjoyable physical in-store presence in face of COVID-19, edge computing may provide one route. In order to work effectively and safely, implementing edge technology and utilising the same level of data insights that online retailers naturally do, physical high street retailers will start to see a market shift that will allow them to compete more effectively with their all-digital online rivals, all while adhering to regulations throughout COVID-19 and beyond.

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