Retail, Robots, and COVID-19: Trends and How Can Robots Play a Role in Safe Shopping
The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time. The countermeasures established by governments and businesses have shaped the way people interact with one another and changed a lot of social norms. Social distancing, mask-wearing, etc are part of the new normal. The retail industry, from the start of the pandemic, has been negatively affected. Brick and mortar stores with no online presence, particularly smaller shops and boutiques are among the most affected. Social distance guidelines and the implementation of quarantine measures have made it difficult for many shops to open, or to operate at maximum capacity like they used to. In this article, Softbank Robotics would like to discuss some new retail trends that we have observed based on the needs of our partners and their clients in the Post COVID-19 climate. In collaboration with a few of our partners and their clients, we will also provide examples of these trends at work and how robotics are currently playing a pivotal role in relieving staff workloads.
It is important to note as well that COVID-19 has not only forced businesses to adapt to new trends, but also it has also forced companies to have cash flow forecasts to at least 6 months, minimize all operations, cut all unimportant investments, and adopt new business models in order to properly adapt to the upcoming trends and be more prepared for the unpredictable times ahead. This cements the importance of automation and technological innovation in the business world. Responding to new demands from industries during the crisis, robotics companies across the globe are taking actions in different sectors, contributing to people’s safety and well-being during this challenging period of time.
Now that we have observed how businesses in retail have responded to COVID-19, let us discuss the 5 trends to keep in mind when thinking about how to adapt to the Post COVID-19 Era.
Trends to Observe in the Post COVID-19 Era
Social distancing is now a practice and guideline that will stick far beyond COVID-19’s effects. Most retail stores still implement restrictions on mask-wearing, restricting how many people can enter the store, and that customers maintain their distance from staff and other consumers. Because of COVID-19, most people are now more aware and worried about their personal wellbeing, and therefore place a lot of emphasis on making sure anywhere they visit now is safe for them to go to. A survey conducted on what consumers consider when returning to a retailer after quarantine is lifted saw that 67% of consumers interviewed valued health and safety protocols in place overall as seen in the following chart:
Source: Ipsos Retail**
This is why with his humanoid shape, Pepper has helped several retailers to maintain a positive welcome while keeping human staff at a larger distance. Such measures come in the form of automated mask-checking, someone in the front making sure people are using alcohol gel to clean their hands, contactless payments, store pick-ups, among other solutions. Cleaning and disinfecting robotic solutions have started to see demand, including for SoftBank Robotics Whiz cleaner, powered by BrainOS.
Although this was already a trend before COVID-19, it is now more pronounced than ever. Retailers must focus more on building the overall customer experience as consumers no longer just think about the product itself, but how they buy it. Their experience is part of the overall product. The average customer is way more conscious of what they buy, how it was made, who they bought it from, etc.
Not only that, but the rise of social media in the last few years has made it important to make sure your consumers are talking about their experience and your product online. It makes much more an impact than just having corporate/business accounts. Thanks to innovation and technology, consumers want highly personalized and humane touches to their experiences, but also want an innovative approach to their shopping experience. Retailtainment is a way for businesses to improve their customers’ experiences, like interacting with shoppers in a 'gaming' and 'fun' way, to pass brand messages or sales promotions. Novel and innovative in-store technologies like robots have been successfully used in such an environment.
To leverage shopper experience, Pepper can talk to customers about any potential sales in a 'lively' way, entrain children to release parents while shopping around.
Due to the pandemic, people today have turned to one-stop shopping options for doing all their shopping. This includes online shopping, hypermarkets, large stores, etc. This makes it hard for smaller businesses to attract people since it’s harder to compete with the level of the variety found in larger shopping stores or the versatility and convenience of online shopping. It's not only the small and medium businesses that need this, in a department store, but shoppers also have so many similar choices of different brands, those brands need to differentiate themselves from others as well. Not only that, but people are no longer spending as much, so business owners must focus on making their whole brand equal to quality and good customer experience.
Shop owners must find answers to the questions of, how can I attract customers to my store, how can I change a window shopper to a real customer, and what can I do to add some visually appealing things to attract customers' attention that doubles as part of the customers’ experience. One particular example is how in Tokyo, Pepper has been deployed in giant shops like Big Camera, Yodobashi, and SoftBank mobile stores. Here Pepper robots welcome shoppers and help them find their way around the store.
Reduce Workload and Stress for Staff and Management
Stress reduction is also a trend that was up and coming before the pandemic but is very heightened as a result of the pandemic’s effects. It’s important to find out how to lower stress for both staff and leadership, without increasing your operational costs. In this sense, automation has been taking a stronghold in the market, meaning staff can focus on less menial tasks and do other things that are more important. Automation and robotics can significantly decrease the amount of stress for staff, and this can lead to happier employees and yield better results in the long run. Automation also ensures that things will keep running smoothly and efficiently.
Another thing that goes hand in hand with something we mentioned earlier is that since consumers today do a lot of research, that includes products, and even how companies treat their employees. Potential customers will probably be more drawn to a company that values its employees and finds ways to reduce their workload. Employees are part of the company’s brand.
A good example with Pepper is him being able to handle store pick-ups, handle payments, among other things, as it is NFC capable and even has the ability to read QR codes. That way staff is able to do other things that require more attention. Since Pepper has the ability to do mask-checking and help maintain social distancing, staff do not have to worry about smaller tasks like that.
Phygital, New Consumer Behaviour Adoption
Now more than ever, companies and business owners must find ways to include and integrate their physical store into the online experience. It’s not just about sales but finding ways to bring people to your store. This can be done via store pick-ups or fast online ordering.
The customer experience to the storefront can begin from the online experience, and companies should be doing their best to motivate people to come to the store. This also allows companies and store owners to demonstrate that they are innovating and taking into consideration health precautions and that a satisfying buying experience awaits them at the store.
In Pepper’s case, being IoT enabled, he can handle anything that’s done through online means, and bring it to the physical. Pepper is able to send messages to customers about any specials, their receipts, and much more.
These trends, as we mentioned before, are the 5 most important ones we have observed. We would like to show how these trends were up and coming during the height of the pandemic with some use cases courtesy of our partners and their clients, with Pepper as a valuable solution to the COVID-19 challenge.
Pepper in Action
Entrance Robotics’s Retail Solutions Mid and Post COVID-19
A partner we work with is Entrance Robotics in Germany. Recently they have deployed a Pepper at EDEKA supermarkets in Lindlar. Interestingly, EDEKA, which counts on over 4,100 stores, is the first supermarket chain in Germany to use a humanoid robot as a COVID-19 measure. The Entrance Robotics team has proved with their solutions that digitalization is a need for the storefront. In keeping with health guidelines, Pepper does mask checking and also provides help in keeping social distancing. Entrance developed solutions for the client which included ways to reduce stress and workload for staff and helping ease the majorly older demographic of Lindlar.
Pepper has been received as something positive and appealing during these hard times and has added to the overall customer experience. Pepper has also been well received by staff. This smart & innovative way of enforcing social distancing and refraining from "hamster buying" helped EDEKA generate over 10 TV coverages and many press clips including Reuters, NBCnews, and many other news outlets.
Mobile Technology’s Retail Solutions for Mid and Post COVID-19
Our Greek partner Mobile Technology offers many retail solutions that stay in touch with the trends we have mentioned in this article. In regards to the solutions that they offer, specifically for retail, these include but not limited to: Footfall increase & acquisition of new customers, Consumer Engagement & customer loyalty, and Automatized central system update following the inventory process. Some of their solutions have been applied to our Pepper robot, which Mobile Technology deployed at the Greek supermarket chain AB Vasilopoulos.
At the store, Pepper’s has helped staff focus on other tasks while Pepper tends to the customers, which keeps in line with focusing on the customer experience and reducing staff workload. Pepper has helped spread awareness and educates consumers. Pepper also offers a phygital and contactless experience for the customers. This leads to consumers feeling an overall positive experience and are more likely to share their customer experience with other people. According to the Marketing & Media Commercialization Manager at AB Vasilopoulos S.A, Chryssa Vrouzi, “Staying safe from coronavirus is our main priority, therefore every initiative towards this direction is more than welcome.”
Humanizing Technology’s Retail Solutions for Post Covid
Our strategic partner, Humanizing technology offers several retail solutions. Ranging from Robot Management System, Chatbox, Data Analytics and QR scanning to Proactive engagement, Humanizing Technologies offers both custom and ready to go technical expertise.
For Sonae Sierra, Humanizing Technologies has enabled ‘welcome’ and ‘Inform & Recommend’ features in Pepper. This enables Pepper to give an extremely warm welcome to all its visitors at the mall and inform them about the current offer of tenants and services, thus seeking more support for the stores and services of the Center. The pre-covid era has significantly decreased the footfall in the mall and Sonae Sierra’s initiative of deploying a humanoid robot to combat the decreasing sales has been highly beneficial. Pepper’s proactive engagement with the visitors has been prolific and Sonae Sierra is looking forward to deploying Pepper in several other locations!
These unprecedented times have brought sudden and unexpected changes not just to the world of business but also long-lasting social changes. In the retail industry, these changes have permeated the way business is conducted, and have given rise to a slew of trends. The 5 ones we discussed with you are the most important ones we have observed from the solutions our partners have provided their clients, as well as conclusions from market studies. To reiterate, these 5 trends are: Customer Experience or “Retailment” orientation, Focusing on safety first, Doing more to stand out, Reducing workload and stress for staff, and Integrating the online into the offline. As we enter the post-pandemic era, we recommend taking these trends into account and adapting your business strategy to stay ahead of the curve.
For us, robotics plays a huge role in the post-COVID-19 era, as much as it does in the height of the pandemic. Robots like Pepper can allow people to stay safe, inform and educate, allow people to have contactless experience, draw attention, among many other incredible solutions. Like we saw in the previous use cases, Pepper played a pivotal role in the businesses’ strategies and how they chose to adapt to the COVID-19 challenge, and how they will move forward into the post-COVID-19 era. Pandemic or not, retail always has to innovate and evolve the way people show and experience their shopping. In your opinion, do you believe retail and robotics go hand in hand and share a common future?
This article will be continuously updated as more information becomes available.