How can smartphones help navigate the new retail landscape?

Covid-19 is rapidly shifting consumer behaviours, faster than any other period in living memory. The pandemic and its subsequent economic recession presents a quite literal ‘gun to your head’ moment for retail leaders, and we’ve reached a moment where they must face and embrace innovation.

As of March 2020, eight in 10 people in the UK and US claimed to have altered their behaviours as a result of the pandemic, and looking at more recent data, it’s clear to see the challenges for physical retail. Roughly a quarter of Britons plan to make permanent changes to the way they shop in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and more than half currently don’t feel at ease visiting stores that aren’t supermarkets. This has been exacerbated further by new lockdown measures which will see the temporary closure of non-essential shops in England for a portion of the crucial ‘golden quarter’.

The question is - how can physical retailers adapt to bring customers in safely, whilst increasing the experience of customers in-store?

We’ve already seen some interesting innovation using tech to cope, such as Tesco’s implementation of a 3D imaging system across some of its stores, mapping the amount of people in-store in real-time to enable the safest possible customer flow in and out of the building.

Nike is also a good example. It’s recently unveiled two incredible stores; the Nike Rise in China and the new House of Innovation flagship in Paris. These stores combine digital and physical experiences in a way we’ve not really seen before, and link Nike’s ecosystem of apps with the pre and post purchase journey, regardless of whether it started on or offline.

At Rehab, we think some of the most promising answers to the challenges ahead lie within smartphones and devices, helping in a number of key areas.

In-Store assistants: This aspect of shopping has been fully lost to Covid-19 in the last few months, though there is a general consensus on their vital role on both the in-store experience and ultimate purchase decisions. By utilising smartphones, it’s more than possible for customers to have virtual in-store assistance on-demand, to help answer basic questions around stock levels, sizes, or changing room requests. Physical contact is reduced, but an opportunity to secure sales for out of stock items is created, especially when tied to an experience that facilitates delivery within an hour (similar to our work with Nike Sb).

Augmented reality: AR is not new, but the fidelity and quality of the experiences now available is incredible when compared with a few years back. Apps like and Capture enable 3D rendering on a mobile device which will open doors to creators everywhere. Digital-try on will be huge over the next few years, and the home furnishing sector will also see a lot of innovation. Being able to place and visualise products using augmented reality will become the norm, opening up a significant amount of opportunity for eCommerce businesses, and I would think, significantly less product returns which will impact the bottom line. 

Recommendations: Upselling is a significant revenue generator and retailers will begin to offer real-time recommendations to customers based on common purchase pairings. Beacons will make shoppers aware of highly targeted offers at a store, department and aisle level - no more aimless wandering for obscure ingredients for that Ottolenghi recipe you're cooking! If shoppers interact with POS stands in any way (e.g. a QR code or NFC chip) then highly targeted, unique experiences can be served on their device, helping provide a truly omnichannel experience - a very exciting prospect.  

Payment: Using phones for payment is nothing new, though making this the norm, or even compulsory, could be another way to eliminate needless touchpoints of paying by cash or card. A growing familiarity (and post-Covid desire) with scan as you shop technology will accelerate behavioural change relating to the checkout experience. I would think the hardware itself will change, as retailers ask shoppers to use their own devices to help reduce technology overheads. M&S, Tesco and Amazon are just three high profile businesses that are trialling the cashless store, and with Amazon rumoured to be opening a number of Amazon Go stores in London soon, I'd wager others will quickly follow.

These possibilities aren’t exactly future-gazing; they’re all readily available, at our fingertips, and ready for implementation by retailers everywhere.

If used properly, we strongly believe that they will spread, too. After all, if people are able to get such a powerful experience all in one place, and all through one device they already carry around with them - they will demand consistency in numbers.

Smartphones may receive a bad wrap sometimes, but they may be what we need to save the retail landscape.