Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Gearing up for the holiday shopping season, big box stores like Walmart and Target have increased their tech presences to help cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. While smaller stores and businesses might lack the online presence and queuing systems to readily adapt to a virtual shopping experience, big retailers who have been well equipped with smart and contactless technologies for years are seeing more customers utilize their self-service offerings. While many stores seem less packed, customers have been flocking to online ordering and pick-up services to avoid line-ups, keeping staff busy and visits socially-distanced. Some of the most sophisticated offerings even let people order online and have store staff deliver the items directly to their cars parked at special ‘Drive-Up Spots’.

Nearly all of these technological advancements are made possible by dramatic improvements in Internet of Things (IoT) systems that have matured over the last decade. The IoT tech sector is expected to be worth over $94 billion by 2025 as retail stores and others see the demand for improving the delivery of products and services. Some key IoT technologies that are driving growth include cashier-less payment systems, wireless shipment tracking devices, inventory management tools and even in-store buyer behavior tracking. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon has fully embraced IoT devices within Walmart stating, “The internet of things, drones, delivery robots, 3D-printing and self-driving cars will allow retailers to further automate and optimize supply chains too. Both sides of the equation – demand and supply – will change dramatically.” And numerous experts have chimed in to give their predictions of what retail shopping will look like in the not-too-distant future.

Target, who has also fully embraced an IoT retail future, has seen record profits and high stock values in 2020 as the demand for consumer goods has outpaced economic concerns for many. The double edged sword for small retailers who didn’t embrace e-commerce or contactless technologies has forced them to close their doors during the pandemic creating a win-win scenario for large warehouse businesses as consumers were left with fewer retailers to choose from. Large retailers have also made many efforts to keep their customers safe and coming through their doors by sanitizing carts and baskets between use, making masks available and required, monitoring social distancing rules and implementing dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable guests. Big box stores have also increased their labor forces, creating new warehouse, customer service and delivery driver positions to address changing shopper habits.

New retail based technologies are still arriving to create an even better online shopping experience. Fit:Match, a company that has created a virtual fitting room based on a database of clothing measurements from different fashion designers and clothing companies have rolled out an e-commerce platform that uses a 3D model of the shopper (attained by visiting a Fit:Match measuring location) and finds the best fitting clothing based on AI matching. Other technologies waiting in the wings, like ‘smart carts’, will allow an in-person shopper to pay for their items directly on the shopping cart to avoid the checkout lane entirely.

I think we can expect to see even more changes in 2021 and beyond, as shopper culture continues to adapt to the new normal of the post-pandemic world. It will be most interesting to see how big retailers continue to push the envelope. Unlike smaller shops, these large stores might be able to do as well -- or better -- with shoppers who use mobile applications and other tools that give customers better control over their shopping experience rather than spending their time pushing carts down the aisles. While in-store visits still drive the bulk of store profits for even the largest retailers, in the future, the power and convenience afforded by new tech tools could well change that.

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