The Return of Retail Down Under (and Elsewhere Around the World)

With Australia, New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific countries reopening borders for the first time in over a year, retailers must figure out how to reopen stores in line with new consumer shopping behaviors.

A retail associate uses a Zebra RFD40 handheld RFID sled to read tags on shoes in a store
by George Pepes
December 06, 2021

If you’re in North America or Europe, you may have found yourself frequenting your favorite stores in person in recent months, a relief from the early days of online-only shopping. However, people in many parts of the world, especially here in Asia-Pacific (APAC), were just given permission in recent weeks to re-enter the world and start resuming pre-pandemic activities.

That means retailers, restaurateurs and others in the consumer goods and services sectors must also figure out the best way to venture forth – without getting set back too much financially or compromising anyone’s safety.

Shoppers Have New Interests – and Habits

In Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study, 81% of APAC shoppers said they have used mobile ordering and 63% have used a mobile app to order food or grocery delivery. That’s up from 72% and 56% respectively in 2020, when many assumed e-commerce and mobile commerce (m-commerce) were hitting their peak. But as lockdowns lingered, store doors remained shut to shoppers, and people became increasingly wary to wander outside their homes, the convenience and necessity of online or in-app ordering increased.

Now, as stores reopen, you must figure out a way to accommodate shoppers’ evolved expectations. Click and collect isn’t going away, and self-service options will remain in high demand – if only for their convenience. Over six-in-10 APAC shoppers say they favor retailers that let them pick up items in store, curbside or another location such as a locker.

That means you have no choice but to diversify your fulfillment options and speeds. But you probably know that already. In fact, the Global Shopper Study revealed that retail decision-makers in APAC are more concerned than their counterparts in other regions about how they will increase the efficiency of processing and fulfilling online orders. They (or, should I say, “you”) are also the most committed to reducing the expense of online order fulfillment – even though that’s going to require some upfront investment.

Physical and Digital Redesigns Required – Along with Far Greater Technology Use

There’s no question that reconfigurations will be needed in the front of the store, back of the store, and even outside of the store if you want to appease shoppers in 2022 and beyond. But you might also need to consider opening either a brick-and-mortar store or e-commerce/m-commerce shop if you want to attract – or retain – customers. Globally, seven-in-10 shoppers said they prefer a blend of in-store and online shopping and would rather shop at online retailers that also have brick-and-mortar locations.

What’s more, as tourism resumes in APAC, you must be prepared to accommodate both locals and visitors, especially if you primarily generate revenue from fashion. Some shoppers may want a completely immersive in-store experience, while others may still prefer the convenience of click and collect or contactless/DIY checkout.

In other words, the next couple of months need to be spent ensuring proper in-store…

1. sourcing to keep the right products and quantities on hand at all times to maximize sales.

2. staffing to keep shelves and racks stocked, support customer inquiries, fulfill online orders and expedite assisted checkouts.

3. spacing between aisles, customer service desks, pickup/return stations, and checkout lanes, both for safety and overall traffic flow purposes.

4. sanitization of all surfaces, including self-service mobile devices and scanners.

5. self-service options for customers who are more satisfied by a DIY experience.

This will require significant layout changes along with change management efforts among customers and associates alike:

- Communicate where people must go to get what they need. This is key, especially if you’ve removed aisles to make way for a micro fulfillment center, split up the customer service and returns locations, or set up new self-checkout stations. Even associates will need guidance, as the familiarity they had with merchandise locations could have been affected when you reorganized. In addition, new dark store, delivery or click and collect staging setups may have them wandering around trying to get the new lay of the land. So, ensure proper store signage and mobile device guidance – and have well-trained associates on standby to assist.

- Prepare people for what to expect each step of the way, whether they’re on the giving or receiving end. Detail the new processes repeatedly in writing through emails, app notifications and (once again) store signage. Share updates frequently, repeatedly, and simply.

-  Solicit feedback. Do they like the physical and digital changes you’ve made? Is there more you could do to make their experience better? Is your store easy to find and shop online? Is it easy to find items in store? Could the mobile app experience be improved? Or the handoff of online orders be faster?

Successfully transforming the retail experience to mirror current shopper and associate expectations will also require you to put the proper equipment at all customer touchpoints. In today’s retail environment, that means:

-  a mobile computing device individually assigned to each associate for real-time team chat and customer assistance tasks. The device should also be able to provide real-time inventory availability, location and pricing information, along with the flexibility to order an out-of-stock item for a customer on the spot for later home delivery or store pickup.

- high-quality barcode scanners for point-of-sale (POS) transactions. In some cases, these might be integrated into Personal Shopping Solutions (PSS) that customers can pickup when they arrive and return after they are finished shopping. In most cases, though, these will be standalone handheld or contactless scanners designed specifically for register use cases, such as ringing up or returning items, scanning loyalty cards or even accepting payment from shoppers’ smartphones. In fact, mobile wallets are becoming quite mainstream across APAC. In Thailand, 93.7% of consumers recently surveyed said they had a mobile wallet and used it in a shop in the past 12 months. At least 60% of consumers in other APAC countries also report recent mobile wallet use. Some analysts say it’s the proliferation of QR-code- based payments driving the trend – which is well-supported by POS barcode scanners.

- fixed RFID readers that can verify the proper payment for customers leaving the store with bagged items and help expedite returns when a customer can’t produce a receipt.

- prescriptive analytics software that can build trust in the validity of self-scanning transactions and help associates know when items may be out-of-stock or out of place on a shelf.

- kiosks attached to printers that allow customers to complete returns without associate assistance or open lockers/call for assistance for pickup up of click and collect orders. These kiosks could also be used to complete orders for in-store shoppers, offering them an easy way to lookup inventory, purchase out-of-stock items online or at another nearby store, and retrieve exclusive in-store discounts for certain merchandise.

Note, these are likely just the minimum requirements.

When considering the proper layout and retail execution model to accommodate in-store shoppers and click and collect customers, remember they are equally concerned about health and safety. They don’t want to wait in line. In-and-out trips are still favored whether purchasing or returning something.

In fact, shoppers increasingly prefer retailers that offer easy returns by mail or in-store, with eight-in-10 study respondents claiming this influences their retailer preference. Interestingly, returns are an area where retail decision-makers and associates admittedly feel most stuck right now. I suspect you, like other retail leaders, will spend much of 2022 figuring out how to make the returns process less painful. And in a future blog post, I’ll delve more into the changes that you can implement across store and supply chain processes to better manage returns.

For now, though, just remember it’s not enough to separate the returns desk from the customer service desk in a store. The line will still be long unless workers can more efficiently process those returns. And a customer who may have been happy with the retailer’s online shopping experience could quickly turn sour if they are forced to wait an hour to return one, low-dollar item in store.

So, as you start to redesign your physical and digital store components, consider how technology can be integrated into every aspect to ensure customers can navigate and complete their transactions without any friction. Automate anything and everything you can – especially operational analytics, associate assignments, online order fulfillment, and even demand planning.

If you need inspiration – or just proof that your ideas will work – I encourage you to pop into Zebra’s virtual store to see what’s possible. Then schedule time to meet with a Zebra retail expert who can assess your individual operating model, including current physical and digital setups, and recommend ways to solve your most pressing problems. They’ll help you get set up with the technologies you need to offer customers their most positively memorable shopping (or returns) experiences every time.

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George Pepes
George Pepes has more than 20 years of experience in automatic identification and communication (AIDC) technologies, including mobile printing and computing, data capture, RFID and the Internet Things (IoT). He has worked directly with large retail customers and channel partners in Australia and New Zealand to apply technologies in a way that reduces their operational costs, improves efficiency, increases market share and improves customer satisfaction.