Six Health-Conscious Advancements That Have Altered The In-Store Experience
Summary: Experts agree that COVID-19 sped up the adoption of digital technologies by several years, but it also altered the in-store experience with health-conscious advancements that will likely outlast the pandemic’s duration. In the blog, we explore six innovations that we’ve noticed over the past 15+ months and explain how they’ve changed in-store shopping for good.
Six Health-Conscious Advancements That Have Altered The In-Store Experience
In a major way, 2020 and the beginning of 2021 was the unhealthiest era in recent human history. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread its way across the globe, 174 million people have fallen sick from the virus, and almost 600,000 in the United States alone have died. In an effort to slow the spread, governments and citizens have adopted public health measures including mask wearing and frequent hand washing – even opting to stay at home to avoid public spaces and large crowds. As a result, many industries have been challenged to develop innovative products, solutions, and services that aim to keep consumers safe and healthy. One industry that’s had to change the way they traditionally do things is retail.
March of 2020 was when our average lives were totally upended by a wave of store closures due to COVID-19. According to a CNBC article from March 15th of 2020, “major retailers across the U.S., including Macy’s, Apple and Nike, are shutting down their stores or reducing hours in response to the coronavirus pandemic.” Additionally, the news agency predicted that “this could result in a record year for permanent retail store closures, which could mount to over 15,000” – a number that in hindsight wasn’t too far off. Eventually, however, most retail stores did open back up to the public, albeit with many new health measures in place to help calm worries and make shoppers feel more comfortable in-store. Let’s explore a few of the most notable changes we’ve witnessed in the past 15+ months.
1) Mask Mandates In Retail Stores
Although mask mandates are easing nationwide as vaccine efforts ramp up and COVID-19 cases fall, they were generally without exception in the early days of the pandemic. As retailers scrambled to up their sanitation efforts, the next best option was to require shoppers to cover their nose and mouths while in-store. According to The New York Times, “after Walmart, America’s largest retailer, announced on July 15 that it would mandate in-store mask-wearing, a flurry of other companies, including Kroger, Target and Walgreens, followed suit.” Now, in June of 2021, many retailers have reversed those mask mandates in accordance with CDC guidelines; Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS, Home Depot and Target now allow fully vaccinated customers to shop mask-free in their stores. However, some people have no plans to stop wearing their masks, even if they’re fully vaxxed. According to Healthline, many Americans will likely choose to hold onto their masks even after the pandemic ends – especially during flu and cold season.
2) Thermal Sensors To Scan Shoppers
Another health-related addition to many retail stores during the pandemic was thermal sensors to scan shoppers upon entry. Since taking every employee and shopper’s temperature orally with a thermometer isn’t a practical solution, Winsight Grocery Business says “the solution is screening devices that use thermal sensors that detect infrared light that can tell the user where different temperatures exist on a given surface, in this case, the skin of the person being screened.” Since fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, the idea behind thermal sensors is to prevent sick people from entering a store’s doors and possibly infecting their fellow shoppers and the store’s retail employees. Not only do thermal sensors help to limit the free spread of infectious pathogens, but they’re also a visual symbol to shoppers that a retailer is taking serious and significant measures to protect the health and wellness of its customers – a move that can potentially enhance consumer confidence and build brand loyalty, as well.
3) Readily Available Cleaning Stations
Although cart wipes have been available at most major retailers for a number of years, their popularity soared to new heights in 2020 and 2021, along with self-service staples like hand sanitizer stations. The nation’s largest supermarket chain, Kroger, even made the decision to cut store hours to allow work crews to more efficiently clean and restock shelves. But despite the industry’s recent advancements, some experts predict that we’ve merely scratched the surface of sanitation in retail environments. According to Progressive Grocer, the newest entry in the food retail robot race comes from Badger Technologies, which has launched its new Badger UV Disinfect robot: “the product is an autonomous ultraviolet (UV) disinfecting robot designed to combat COVID-19 and high-risk pathogens commonly found in grocery, food service and retail environments.” Apparently, the robot can decontaminate 40,000 square feet in just two hours. As health, wellness, and public safety demands linger, it’s likely that we’ll see a number of retailers adopt similar technology.
4) Touch-Free Technology Takes Over
Along with “unprecedented,” “touch-free” was the buzzword of 2020. As retailers scrambled to make their stores more health-conscious, many introduced touch-free technology at the speed of light, including contactless payment options, in-aisle QR codes, AR/VR try-on stations, and even “magic mirrors.” According to Chain Store Age, “the Magic Mirror started as an augmented reality tool for shoppers to virtually ‘try on’ different clothing items in front of a mirror outfitted with sensors, enabling a motion-triggered virtual change of clothing.” Not only do Magic Mirrors allow shoppers to “interact” with products before purchase, but they also enable retailers to pull and track valuable data, track sales and social media sharing, and ultimately expand loyalty programs. In addition to touchless technology in-store, contactless buying options like BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up In Store) have also soared in popularity; according to Shopify, “this popular retail strategy gives customers the best of both worlds by integrating online shopping and in-person pickup.”
5) Remote Management And Control
Merchandising has been heavily featured in retail environments for decades; experts say the first window displays were installed in the late 18th century in London. However, the displays of 2021 have evolved to become interactive, with technology that physically engages shoppers and provides an immersive experience. According to Retail Customer Experience, “not only does technology offer data collection capabilities, but incorporating entertaining components excites shoppers and encourages discovery.” That said, the technology that powers interactive displays isn’t without its faults, and many types of displays require regular maintenance to diagnose issues, replace parts, and restore service. When COVID-19 hit and retailers were forced to limit their space occupancy, that also meant they couldn’t rely on the same level of in-person display maintenance. Therefore, remote management and control became essential. Interactive displays moving forward will need to be accessible from smart phones, not only for health reasons but also for the added convenience. If 3rd-party techs can check on the status of displays from afar, they can address issues in real time.
6) Appointment-Based Shopping Trips
Although appointment-based shopping trips are not new, they took on a new life during the COVID-19 pandemic. One example of a big-box retailer who introduced appointment-only shopping during the pandemic was Best Buy. According to Fortune, the company “turned to appointment-only shopping in blocks of 30 minutes to limit the number of people in stores. Each customer is given a safety briefing by phone beforehand and chaperoned by a Best Buy employee once at the store.” Beyond the health-conscious ramifications, that model has monetary perks; since appointment-based shopping is a more one-on-one, personal experience between shopper and store employee, it allows ample opportunity for upselling. But as Fortune points out, for appointment shopping to work, a retailer has to be good at e-commerce and have an app with reliable scheduling features. Otherwise, the average consumer won’t bother to set up an appointment if it’s not convenient to do so. It’s just another example of why retailers need to focus on adopting technology innovations to meet changing expectations.
Nice-To-Haves Are Now Necessities For In-Store Shopping
At the beginning of the pandemic, in-store shopping took a turn for the worse. Non-essential businesses closed their doors, retail employees were temporarily laid off, and global supply chains were disrupted – who else remembers the toilet paper fiasco of 2020? But what seemed at first to be temporary pandemic-inspired sanitizing solutions and touch-free technology has since evolved to become the modern standard of in-person shopping, and we’re likely to see these advancements stick around for the long haul. At BDS Connected Solutions, we’ve witnessed the industry’s major shifts over the past year and half, and we’ve had to expand our operations to keep up with consumer demands. That’s why we now provide a suite of video-powered solutions that enhance the shopping experience, and it’s also why we’re so proud to promote technology like IoTrace, our proprietary human-driven and AI-enabled solution for interactive displays. If you’re interested in upping your retail game, both online and off, contact BDS Connected Solutions today.