Covid-19: How retailers are using technology to reopen stores

The opening of non-essential stores on Monday June 15 feels like a first tentative step towards normality. But with social distancing and closed changing rooms, it’ll be shopping but not as we know it. To help smooth the process, retailers are using technology to make the customer journey as easy as possible. 

Many are taking a phased approach to reopening. John Lewis closed its 50 department stores on 23 March for the first time in its 155-year history. Now the department store will open two stores on Monday 15 June, followed by 11 more on Thursday 18 June. Like most retailers, it is fitting protective screens at the check out, limiting customer numbers and increasing contactless payments to £45.

High-street changes

But John Lewis is also trialling a number of technology pilots. Virtual queuing will be available in select stores in the coming weeks, where customers can join a digital queue through their phone or via a customer service host with a tablet and receive updates when it's their turn to enter. 

For customers not quite ready for the in-store experience, remote shopping will be available in a small number of shops towards the end of the month. Customers can book a sales assistant for 30 minutes to do their shopping via a live video call.

Meanwhile, M&S – which is reopening the majority of its 260 clothing stores – has expanded its Mobile Pay Go service, which minimises contact by allowing customers to scan products as they go via their phones and leave without visiting a checkout. And while its close-contact services may be temporarily closed, in-store colleagues will direct customers to online fitting services. 

Smaller retailers are also looking to enhance the in-store experience. Lingerie business Mish is launching an online appointment system from Fresha so customers can book personalised one-to-one time. Because visits will be appointment only, it will be able to fully clean fitting rooms in between each visit. Mish also recently began a virtual online bra fitting service, so customers who’d rather not visit the store can receive a video consultation. 

Making it count

Claire Suggitt, shopping centre manager of the Tunsgate Quarter in Guildford, has been busying preparing for the reopening of the shopping centre on Monday 15 June, with most of its outlets expected to open by the end of the month. As part of its preparations, the centre has increased the functionality of its footfall counting software from technology provider PFM.

Previously, data on the number of people in the centre would upload every half an hour. “Now we have a real time data collection, that counts how many people are in the shopping centre,” says Suggitt.

“We’re not just relying on that alone, we also have CCTV, and a guest services team to ensure the smooth flow of shopping. But they can access that information at any given time on their telephones and instantly tell the numbers.” That will inform decisions on whether to hold customers at entrances “and reassure them we are thinking of their safety and experience,” she says.

Meanwhile, shopping centre operator, Intu, is also adapting its existing footfall-monitoring technology to enable it control the number of customers across its sites at any one time, ensuring maximum capacity is not exceeded.

Michael Valdsgaard, CEO of London Dynamics, and former head of digital transformation at Ikea, believes the most useful technology retailers are using to assist reopening might also be some of the most prosaic. “The two clear trends I’m seeing are counting systems and sensor technology to prevent the overcrowding of stores,” he says.

Other systems will depend on who the retailer is and what they are selling. For example ‘magic mirrors’ – where customers can try on virtual clothes in-store – tend to be an awkward experience and haven’t had much take-up, he notes. “But other things like handing a customer an iPad and allowing them to try on lipstick virtually could be super useful at the moment." 

Simply ensuring stores have good WiFi, so customers can view the whole range of products remotely to see what they need and minimise time in store will also be important. Valdsgaard, who developed an augmented experience tool for Ikea before starting his augmented reality business, also believes retailers could benefit from making their online experience more like the in-store one. 

“Going to the high street to browse and do all those emotional things isn’t something customers will be able to do yet." Giving customers a more in-depth online browsing experience could help fill the gap, he says.