How Retail Stores Can Use New Tech

The digitization scene is exploding onto the global arena. Working in both the software and, most recently, the e-commerce space, I have heard the following statements in way too many conversations: “Brick-and-mortar is dead,” “It’s all e-commerce from now on,” and my personal favorite, “Why do you still shop at stores? Just order online!”

While I am one of the strongest proponents of technology and do endorse the fact that the e-commerce space is here to stay, instore and e-commerce are two completely different and distinct shopping experiences.

But the bigger concern here is why are both established and less-established conventional store owners having such a hard time adjusting to technology and the massive advantages that it offers them? It is because rather than seeing technology as an evolution of their business model, they see it as a disrupter.

Retailers implement technology to avoid disruption

There is no easy way to say it. Right now, a lot of the technology adoption being done globally – both instore and outside of it – is being done simply to avoid disruption. I am not one to argue with the evolution of an environment, but for a lot of us who are trying to organically evolve and innovate certain business practices, the fear of pending disruption causes massive anxiety in business owners. This pushes them – and their teams – to quickly overhaul certain aspects of the business and push for KPIs that should not be expected at such a nascent stage.

An example of this is the e-commerce scene in Pakistan. As it is evolving, the necessary digital landscape is gradually arriving in this market, which is why there is a need to find and fund future-proof, hybrid business models. These models need to take into account that certain aspects of the conventional retail journey can be digitized, while others need to be looked at carefully before investments are made. 

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Expanding on my point above, you as a business owner or key decision-maker must understand your current environment and what sort of disruption your market should expect. In 2017, global e-commerce represented around $2.3 trillion in sales and is expected to hit $4.5 trillion by 2021, according to a Statista report.

But if we examine the US market with respect to this data, e-commerce currently represents around 10% of retail sales. Although this number is growing, brick-and-mortar retail is not going away either!

I base this on two basic things; numbers and logic. There is too much physical infrastructure (in the forms of shops, midlevel stores, malls and high-end outlets) and years – not just decades but millenniums – of physical shopping experiences for digital to so quickly replace it.

Long story short, physical stores are here to stay because the sensory experience that physical shopping provides is not something consumers will let go of easily. The value proposition for fullscale digitization has to be massive with discounts, faster deliveries and service. While good, current offerings are not enough to completely move people from the physical to the virtual.

Bridging the gap between physical and e-commerce stores

We’ve established that physical stores are not going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that e-commerce is dead; all the numbers point towards its growth. Right now, physical and virtual stores are fighting for a larger chunk of consumer purchases in a nonsensical tug of war where there can be no clear winners.

The solution is technology. As I have stated earlier in this article, the adoption of technology needs to be an organic and seamless journey. As such, the amalgamation of the physical and virtual storefronts needs to be a natural alliance. We now have the tech to connect with customers and build a two-way communication process. Here are examples of new startups that are evolving the way a storefront can and should function.

  • Companies like Proximate are guiding consumers to stores and shelves across the Middle East through a Bluetooth beacon-based mobile application. The apps let people know of deals, discounts and experiences around them (through the concept of nearables) and will also alert shop owners to let them know which campaigns brought traffic to their storefront. There are other firms like ShopKick that are doing similar things in other parts of the world.  
  • Another good example is a company called Retail Zipline. This communications software helps retailers coordinate their brick-and-mortar stores and boost employee engagement. It is a brilliant example of technology helping build and streamline operational processes for brick-and-mortar firms.
  • Amazon Go is an example of how an e-commerce giant saw efficacy in building a digital-led brick-and-mortar store. Customers just pick up what they want and walk out, and their mobile phones take care of the scanning, invoicing and payments. The result is a seamless, digital-led, physical purchase process that isn’t intrusive and lets consumers bypass standing in long queues and fumbling around with change and credit cards at checkout counters.
  • Finally, Deligram is innovation at its finest. A young entrepreneur realized the potential that both online and offline models had, with respect to his environment, and put the best pieces together to build the future of retail. Out of Bangladesh, this is by far the best example of how retailers can use technology to elevate their current practices.

Examples like these should help you understand how each channel has a purpose and is a beneficial part of the organic omnichannel retail experience you build for your customers.

Another thing to understand is that now new technology practices exist that can help transverse your current geographic limitations. With drop-shipping firms at your disposal, you now have the capacity to open your virtual doors to any global destination.

Using retail technology organically

I know for some this might be understating the entire digital movement and its disruptive potential, but to organically grow any technology or movement we have to allow it to evolve and run its natural course.

The internet took almost 40 years to become mainstream, but now we can’t imagine life without it. It functions as a utility because it organically grew into that role. A massive community of developers, content creators and entrepreneurs built use-cases for its success and scalability.

With respect to evolving the e-commerce ecosystem, this is where we are right now, where storefront owners need to experiment with a series of technologies and find their fit – with respect to their wallets, their current technology landscape and their vision of their current/future business objectives.

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