The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to many unprecedented challenges and disruptions for retailers in Asia. We see retailers adapting to shifting consumer behavior while handling increased online shopping demand, the closure and reopening of non-essential stores, and an increased basket size when consumers shop for essentials.
A research study on Southeast Asia’s e-commerce industry showed that shopping application sessions increased by 39% in the second quarter of 2020, as compared to the first quarter, and that demand for non-essential items is slowing down significantly. However, it is anticipated that the e-commerce market will continue to increase as more and more people stay at home.
Such changes have catalysed rapid advancements of key retail technology projects and, at the same time, exposed vulnerabilities across retail ecosystems. Retailers are being forced to re-think their stores’ purpose and integrate new physical and digital aspects to create a total omnichannel retail experience. Many retailers previously thought they had years to transform their operations but found themselves compelled to execute plans in a matter of months. Digital technologies have evolved from a strategic priority to an operational imperative, with many countries increasing digital adoption levels. Governments across the region have stepped in to help ease the challenges faced by many retail businesses. The Singapore government, for example, provided S$350 million in digital transformation grants for businesses to support e-payments and advanced digital solution adoption.
Trends such as e-commerce, supply chain optimisation, Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud services have accelerated, as well as services like buy online/pick up in-store (BOPIS) and click and collect. The Zebra 2020 APAC Shopper Study found that fulfillment strategies like these are expected to increase to 90% in five years. The orchestrated adoption of these approaches will continue to drive retail growth in 2021, along with the concept of intelligent automation.
Retailers are ramping up investments in process automation, which utilizes robotics and augmented reality in conjunction with specific machine learning (ML) algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) – and that will continue to rise. This acceleration of retail automation spans the entire supply chain, from warehousing operations and distribution centers to logistics and stores, and stems from the need to deliver technology-enabled experiences that elevate the overall customer experience.
Here’s how retail automation is likely to set a precedent for retail success in 2021 and beyond:
- Better workflows
Retail intelligent automation is a combination of physical robots, physical mobile automation, fixed infrastructure like radio frequency identification (RFID), computer vision (CV) and shelf edge cameras alongside intelligent data analytics. Leveraging these technologies provides perpetual visibility inside retail environments, enabling retailers to ensure they have the right products in the right locations at all times to optimize revenues.
Prior to COVID-19, Zebra’s Intelligent Enterprise Index revealed that 86% of retailers were expecting to increase investment in intelligent automation over the next two years – a trend that will likely be fueled even more now because of the pandemic. This growth is facilitated by more accessibility to AI, ML, robotics, and prescriptive analytics and compounded by a surge in consumer-centric virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri that make it easy for people to place an e-commerce order anytime, from anywhere. With these technologies becoming prevalent in day-to-day life, retailers are also leveraging their capabilities to improve operational workflows such as replenishment, fulfillment, and deliveries.
With the rapid rise of e-commerce and omnichannel fulfillment, the speed at which retailers are adjusting to selling their products online is forcing them to reorganize entire supply chains and fulfillment models and automate where they can.
Retailers require real-time visibility of available inventory to pick online-ordered products directly from the store shelves without negatively impacting the in-store shopper’s experience. Deploying intelligent automation solutions across retail supply chains can help leaders effectively forecast and manage their inventories and reduce the friction, substitutions, and out-of-stocks that can impact a retailer’s brand image.
Retail automation also helps staff save time and improve accuracy. The traditional means of manually scanning and tracking inventory is inefficient and prone to human error. Implementing an intelligent automation platform that can collect and synthesize inventory-related shelf data in real-time empowers store associates to increase overall productivity by eliminating time-wasting activities such as wandering through the store to locate products or find gaps. Increasing collaboration between humans and automation will also help businesses to optimise operations.
- Actionable insights
Data is key in this digitalised world. Yet, many face challenges in the use and application of real-time data. That’s why intelligent automation is becoming so valuable. It generates data that the human eye might otherwise miss and, in conjunction with prescriptive analytics, finds patterns that help retailers and their employees better execute omnichannel operations. They know what is happening and why as well as the exact steps that must be taken to address issues or take advantage of opportunities.
The Zebra 2020 APAC Shopper Study reports that many APAC merchants plan to use prescriptive analytics within the next year, with 75% hoping to implement alerts regarding out-of-stocks, analytics related to point-of-sale (POS) lane wait times, and customer assistance request notifications. This approach will be essential for retailers to improve efficiency, reduce shrink, and increase revenue as these insights can help them make data-driven decisions around resource planning, inventory optimization, and other key aspects of the business. Retailers can then generate near real-time tasks for associates that drive meaningful business improvements.
- Improved customer experiences
As the world of retail continues to shift, retailers should start with a strong operating model and vision. That requires a solid understanding of the breadth of technologies available and how these may contribute to their vision either from an employee productivity or a customer experience perspective.
Choosing the right technology is instrumental in enabling better decision-making and empowering associates to focus on value-added tasks instead of mundane and repetitive tasks to maintain operational performance, and customer expectations are met without issue. Moreover, technology can provide customers with the flexibility and convenience to shop the way they want to through omnichannel options, whether they prefer to go into a physical store, order online for delivery, or use a click-and-collect service.
Retailers must remember that the root of retail success is providing the most frictionless customer experience possible. Retailers who invest in intelligent automation, prescriptive analytics and other workflow automation solutions will be more nimble and ready to adapt to further changes, whether driven by a shift in socioeconomic influences or a public health event. Remember, the modern shopping experience is inextricably linked to technology, and the future of retail belongs to those who can effectively use technology to keep pace with the growing market demand and consumers’ evolving expectations.