As Irish retailers sprang back to life in the last week, just in time for the most important month of the entire year, technology increasingly rose to the challenge of keeping shoppers feeling secure. More than that, though, it can bring added value for consumers and retailers alike.
Brian Jordan, head of innovation and industry solutions at Cisco Ireland, said that one technology that had resonated was the ability to automatically scan for mask-wearing.
“That’s something there’s a need for now, but hopefully won’t be after the vaccine,” said Jordan.
Whether it is needed or not in the medium term there can be no denying that it is, right now, a useful technology.
It’s also not difficult, he said. What is important, however, is remaining compliant with the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR) – and this is something Cisco was quick to tackle.
In fact, Cisco’s Meraki camera system is not designed to recognise faces. Instead, faces, perhaps the ultimate in what the GDPR calls “personally identifying information”, are not checked against an existing database. Instead it recognises the concept of a face.
“What you're recognising is not people – you need to do this in a GDPR-complaint way, after all. You’re recognising a head with or without a face-covering,” he said.
That said, recognising a human head, with or without a mask, and then allowing or disallowing access, is not the only outcome. Other applications include ensuring social distancing regimes are kept to, keeping store throughput at an optimal level, and even prevention of shoplifting.
“It uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to do that, and you can [then] use it to do footfall-monitoring and queue-length monitoring. It can even look toward suspicious behaviour,” Jordan said.
Covid-19 is not the only issue facing retailers, said Jordan, but it has certainly concentrated minds.
“The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift, with consumers adopting a behavioural change. Many analysts believe that the future of work has changed forever to a hybrid model and accordingly the future of retail will also need to adopt a hybrid model,” he said.
This really is only the beginning, said Jordan. Intelligent retail can now respond to shoppers’ needs and desires.
In-store footfall and repeat customers, including e-commerce shoppers, can be provided with additional services – something that will be of interest to more and more retailers as omni-channel strategies increasingly stress the in-store experience as a high-end boutique or showroom-like adjunct to online shopping.
“We couple that with recognising when existing customers are coming back to a store – and that’s important no matter what kind of retail channel you’re using. You can do things like digital push notifications or way-finding, helping them to find their way to certain products in the store,” he said.
More change can be expected, and some of it will be profound.
Jordan said that the so-called “circular economy” will become ever more important. The concept is simple: with environmental issues rising-up the political agenda, consumers are pressuring retailers to consider the entire lifecycle of their products, from materials to manufacturing to eventual disposal. In short, goods will be expected to last longer.
Additional revenue streams, then, will rely on getting customers to return for more than just another bag full of goods.
“In the future, we’ll be going toward a circular economy and many retailers will have to transform themselves, effectively offering more services rather than product sales as products will stay out there longer,” Jordan said.
It’s not just consumers, either: lawmakers are piling-on the pressure, too.
“Ireland is really quite progressive on the legislative side,” said Jordan.
Technology can also be used to make the retail experience more pleasing. Take open roaming, which allows consumers to seamlessly connect to in-store wi-fi networks.
“We think of mobile telephony as an outdoor technology that can be used indoors, and we think of wi-fi as an indoor technology that can be used outdoors. Open roaming will give you the same experience without having to log-in and register all the time. This is what Canary Wharf [in London] has done,” he said.
Providing open roaming means retailers and others can provide augmented services
“It can be used to provide a guide in a museum because it knows you’re there, and the same thing can be done in shops,” he said.
Other technologies promise to fundamentally transform the shop, however, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This means we are now on the cusp of a real revolution, Jordan said.
“Omni-channel is important and online is important, but we’re about to enter a new period where the experience is truly enhanced. You can imagine a fashion retailer offering VR and AR wardrobes,” he said.
The more personalised you make the services the better, he said, arguing that people are more likely to engage with retail that is personalised.
“Discounts for good customers, ways to do an express checkout even though I’m visiting the store, things like that.”
In the end, said Jordan, the retailer-customer experience is a relational one, and technology can enhance this.
“I think absolutely retailers need to engage with technology, it's about creating that connection with the customer. They can continue the engagement as I leave the store, particularly in the online world,” he said.