If any sector has weathered the lockdown storm, it is convenience stores and supermarkets. Less likely to be subject to forced closures, sellers of consumer durables have remained strong throughout the health crisis. However, this is not to say there has been no impact.
Indeed, Oliver Sheridan, director of retail at retail IT specialists CBE, said that how we shop has changed; people spend less time in-store, for one thing.
“Even in convenience and supermarkets, the in-store dwell time in general has dropped,” he said.
For another, deliveries have become the norm for many.
“E-commerce and delivery to the door are essential. Covid accelerated e-commerce at supermarkets and convenience level; while it has [long] been available, it hadn’t really filtered down to the smaller operators,” he said.
Back in the store, there have been significant changes too, with self-service spreading across the sector. The goal is frictionless shopping.
“Frictionless means fewer touchpoints for the customer, who will be tapping with their card or with their phone,” said Sheridan.
For some, this has meant eliminating security scales, hoping to put an end to customers hearing the dreaded phrase ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. Typically, this has been the case where the expectation is that the customer will be buying fewer items.
“It’s a mix, and it depends on the environment. For example, in convenience stores where there is high footfall, with people on average buying fewer than four items, retailers are choosing to install card-only units, monitoring them closely with cameras or staff,” said Sheridan.
Other stores where people typically make more substantial purchases have opted for the larger self-service checkouts with security scales. In both cases, staffing efficiency is the goal, with as large a throughput as possible being facilitated.
“They adopt a fractional model, where a cashier operates a point of sale, but also controls the self-service, such as authorising alcohol sales,” said Sheridan.
The fuel sector was one of the most sceptical of this model, but where CBE has implemented self-checkout it has seen rapid take-up.
“Self-service has been a big part of our business, but there has been a lot of rapid change since Covid. Anybody who has adopted it has seen their usage go up.
“People are getting used to it: you will not suit everyone all of the time, but more and more people who have used self-service are seeing the benefits. Frankly, people want to get out: nobody wants to stand in a queue,” Sheridan said.
Self-service means more than just self-checkout, though. Today, retailers can allow consumers to scan their items as they roam through the shops using CBE’s EasyScan smartphone app, vastly reducing time at the checkout.
Tying this all together is cloud computing, allowing even smaller retailers to offer this kind of sophisticated service.
“With apps, a lot of the cost is incurred from being store specific and the associated branding, so we sync the stores’ products file with our app. As you go into the store there is branding and a QR code, you scan that QR code and it notifies the app which store you are in,” he said.
Sheridan said this system was initially envisaged as being used for very rapid purchases, but has proved to be much more widely used.
“It turns out that this model also suits the larger basket, and feedback thus far reveals that this could encompass larger-scale e-commerce such as shopping lists etc and so this model will evolve over time,” he said.
The same technology is helping with the high street renaissance because it is not only convenience stores that can avail of the advantages of the cloud.
“Another beneficiary has been the butchers’ stores and fruit and veg stores, as those types were able to remain open. We’ve seen a big increase in demands for solutions from them,” said Sheridan.
These kinds of retailers have seen a surge in footfall since last March. “People are spreading their money around as they stay local, so they might go to four or five shops rather than spending it all in one big supermarket.”
Another area where the same backend tech helps is delis, where items can be tracked from the counter to the checkout, even displaying information about allergens.
Such has been the success of cloud, Sheridan said, that CBE is now in the process of migrating all of its software to the cloud by the end of 2022. This in turn will further increase flexibility and ultimately lower the cost of entry to these technologies and solutions for retailers.