Is In-Store technology changing Too Fast? Striking a Balance in the Contactless Era

Ian Cairns

Ian Cairns, enterprise sales director at TalkTalk Business, discusses how the retail sector can adopt new technologies to help keep up with the changing industry and evolving customer demands. 

It’s no secret that the retail industry has faced major changes recently. 

The exponential rise of ecommerce has presented an existential challenge for brick-and-mortar retailers, forcing many high street stores – including BHS, Debenhams, and House of Fraser – to close. 

With concerns around the ‘death of the high street’ now being so ubiquitous, brands are increasingly embracing in-store technology to tempt shoppers back to their premises. But is the in-store experience changing too fast? Do shoppers feel alienated by the sudden introduction of friction-free checkouts or experiential retail? The big question remains: is the UK ready for the future of the high street?

Based on research published by Don’t be Shy and TalkTalk Business that surveyed how UK retail workers view the future of the industry, at first glance, the sector appears to be divided. After surveying 100 senior IT decision makers (ITDMs) and 200 frontline workers, employees repeatedly reported that customers would find certain technology intrusive.  ITDMs however, are keen to accelerate implementation. But how does the industry feel about specific emerging technology – such as contactless checkout and retail analytics?

The dawn of a new era

Despite placing huge demands on retail networks, self-serve checkouts have become a necessary inclusion in almost all FMCG stores. According to a global report into grocery retail by Forrester Consulting, 65% of shoppers use self-serve checkout lanes to speed up their experience and limit face-to-face interaction. And they’re a win-win for retailers who benefit from increased customer satisfaction and reduced staffing requirements, even at peak periods. 

Self-serve has become commonplace- many younger shoppers won’t remember a time when self-serve checkouts weren’t an option. But far from resting on their laurels and sticking with what consumers are familiar with, retailers are looking for the next big thing to drive efficiencies. 

Automated retail: What does it mean?

Automated retail provides a till-free, frictionless shopping experience. Using a combination of weighted shelves, 3D LiDAR technology and customer-monitoring cameras, retailers can track which items are chosen by the customer as they shop. Then, when the customer leaves the store, the items are automatically debited from their preferred payment account and a receipt is sent to their phone. 

No scanning. No human interaction. No wait times. The customer experience is entirely friction-free. But is this the future of retailing? 

The ITDMs surveyed by TalkTalk Business think so. 97% of ITDMs believe automated retail will become the norm, compared to just 30% of frontline workers, who believe till-free shopping presents too many staffing or security issues. 

Which raises the next question: how do people feel about customer monitoring and tracking? Both are standard practice online, and both are necessary for till-free checkout – but again, our survey respondents shared mixed opinions. 

The overwhelming majority of ITDMs (88%) believe their business should consider implementing in-store tracking, compared to just 45% of frontline employees. Perhaps our IT leaders can more clearly see how retail analytics will benefit both brands and consumers – and the opportunity is too good to ignore. 

Is behaviour tracking good for business?

Customer monitoring technologies are becoming smarter and more secure. The same LiDAR technology required for till-free checkout can be used to track customers around the store, while Bluetooth and Wi-Fi beacons can monitor dwell times and customer location. With in-store monitoring in place, retailers will capture more data and learn more about their customers’ behaviour, helping them optimise product placement, prioritise high-traffic areas and target customers with personalised offers. 

But it’s not just retailers who benefit from behaviour tracking and analytics. Consumers do, too. 

Behaviour data can be used to send functional alerts – such as directions, promotions and reminders – to the customer’s phone as they shop. These notifications benefit customers directly, making them more likely to opt-in to the necessary tracking technology.

According to the survey conducted by TalkTalk Business, the majority of customers would be happy to receive personalised notifications on their phones. 61% think customers would find directions to products that are on offer helpful, while 53% believe customers would be pleased to receive reminders of products they regularly buy. 

Accelerated efficiency vs alienated customers

As with all change, resistance is to be expected. Retailers need to ease their customers into the future, without bombarding them with tech that could drive them away. This requires a careful balance between accelerating in-store efficiency and alienating customers with ‘space-age’ tech. 

Many brands have already started this process by introducing concept stores to gauge customer reaction – and test the demand on their network. As with all tech, these innovations place greater demand on retailers’ networks and widen the gap between peak and off-peak periods. 

While trying to navigate the balance between increased efficiencies and customer acceptance, retailers need to make sure that they have the right foundations in place. Having an intelligent, resilient, and flexible network means that, no matter how fast the adoption of smart technologies, the supporting network can adapt easily and quickly to changing demands. Retailers can then start to take advantage of the accumulation of data insights and analyse customer habits in a non-intrusive way, for example, looking for hot spots and optimal product placement. However, to match customer sentiment, retailers may choose against delivering personalised notifications for now. 

Like their customers, businesses need to make sure they’re prepared for the future- and that networks can meet the demands of the technological advancements in the relevant industry.