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When Economy Reopens, Can Contactless Tech Minimize Shopper Anxiety?

Department stores and specialty apparel have been some of the hardest hit sectors in retail for years, well before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shutter all their stores. But as many of their financial issues have accelerated during this period, the question remains: What can these retailers do to increase shopper confidence and convince them to come back into their stores when they open again?

Given the major increase in attention to e-commerce and contactless solutions such as in-store pickup, as well as newfound adaptation to social distancing measures, it may be time for these retailers to invest in more technologies to make the physical shopping experience comfortable above all else. For one, just 37 percent of shoppers say they would feel safe shopping in a department store again after they reopen, according to a survey from First Insight, well below the comfort level of grocery store shoppers (54 percent) and drug store shoppers (50 percent).

“You see this in other industries, especially with food delivery, where everything has moved to contactless delivery, curbside pickup, so there’s minimal contact with people from a physical standpoint,” Michael Bevans, industry solutions manager at ActiveViam, a data science provider, told Sourcing Journal. “This obviously makes people feel much more comfortable.”

Bevans shared an example of how French supermarket chain Carrefour partnered with Philips to install an LED-lighting system that integrates geolocation technology to identify where products are in the store, and then can send push notifications to a shopper’s phone upon entering the store. Promotional notifications can even be catered to the shopper’s previous experiences if they’ve shopped in that location.

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“They should be shifting toward a technology that’s personalized and a person can have in their hand that can both facilitate the shopping experience and limit the contact with their cashiers or people that would normally be a the floor,” Bevans said. “They’ll have that feeling of security and they won’t feel like they’re flying blind upon walking into the store.”

While it would be expensive to outfit entire stores with cameras and sensors to detect where products have been removed from shelves and racks a la Amazon Go, Bevans admitted, these measures must be seriously considered if these retailers have any capital to invest once the COVID-19 period is over, otherwise they’re risking turning off more potential shoppers, especially if they seek out a contact-free environment.

Another area department stores and other apparel retailers will likely need to get up to speed on is payments, where shoppers are typically interacting with a cashier face-to-face. Self-service technology still hasn’t permeated the checkout areas of these retailers. Plus, offering the option of a self-service kiosk on top of checking out at the cashier may cut down lines and enable shoppers to give each other adequate space to practice social distancing.

“Immediately, people are going to want to stay away from cashiers or clerks,” Sam Zietz, CEO of self-service kiosk provider Grubbrr, told Sourcing Journal. “You’re also going to see an increase in people who want the ability to select and find products on their own. Your going to see an increase in what’s already been growing in omnichannel. The retailer might not necessarily carry the extensive amount of inventory they used to. The shopper will come in, find what they like, then they’ll place the order on the kiosk and have the order shipped to their home.”

Lockers for picking up apparel delivered to the store may be a realistic possibility in the near future, similar to what Macy’s and Nike have done, and ambitious retailers could even enable shoppers to scan a code once they enter the store so that they can avoid other shoppers or employees on their way.

“We’ve been having those conversations with retailers more now as part of this post-corona world,” Zietz said. “Before this transpired, we were putting them into fast-food places so people would order their food on the kiosk and pick up at the locker, and order online and pick up at the locker. Sometimes, third-party delivery companies would pick up from the locker as opposed to creating congestion around the cashier station.”

While the idea of a locker, a kiosk or even a vending machine seems like an outside-of-the-box idea for picking up apparel items, younger shoppers have already warmed up to these “unattended retail” concepts. According to a joint study from PYMNTS and USA Technologies, 35 percent of millennials and 29 percent of Gen Z shoppers said they’d be willing to spend more at these unorthodox shopping channels if non-traditional products were offered.

But even as retailers try to calm fears about products being touched and handled prior to purchase by other shoppers or employees via different technologies, they must understand that there are plenty of other ways to limit exposure to the virus from cleaning the store to packaging the products, Bevans said.

“If I think about men’s dress shirts, lots of times I see them pre-packaged,” Bevans said. “They’re not necessarily on the rack. That’s obviously difficult to do with dresses or women’s clothes but certain things could be packaged so that you can avoid the hands touching it. It’s going to be a steep learning curve but it’s really about minimizing. I don’t think you can make someone feel totally 100 percent comfortable that nothing has been touched, but you can at least make sure the people that do have to touch everything are using protective equipment.”