Retail automation accelerates

Mark Thomson, EMEA director of retail and hospitality solutions at Zebra Technologies, answers questions about the changes in the retail sector.

Mark Thomson, EMEA director of retail and hospitality solutions at Zebra Technologies, answers questions about the changes in the retail sector as consumers increase online shopping globally; and retailers scramble to keep up with online and contactless delivery options, while rethinking supply chains and logistics.

What will retail look like during the rebuilding phase after the pandemic?

This is certainly going to be an interesting time for retailers. I think we will see an acceleration toward rebuilding rather than fast, wholesale changes. Grocery retailers in particular, will accelerate the implementation of automation and smart checkouts across their bricks and mortar stores. We’ve already seen a boom in online retailing with the likes of Tesco reporting huge revenue increases in recent weeks and that trend is set to continue. Across the board, we’re likely to see online grocery shopping increase by a third.

Non-grocery retailers will have huge amounts of stock that they’ve been unable to shift, particularly those that don’t have an online presence; so huge markdowns are expected when physical stores do reopen. Retailers might also be reviewing their suppliers as well. Those who have suppliers in Asia and the Middle East could be looking at much longer stock lead times, so they may well look closer to home to receive stock in stores much quicker than before.

How are retailers coping in the current situation?
Mark Thomson.

For retailers who have stores open, restrictions are in place to enforce social distancing. We’ve also seen increased hiring, particularly with grocery retailers, to ensure shelves are being replenished and goods are being delivered on time. We’re seeing a lot of brands rethinking their business models to adapt. The likes of Brewdog Beer, for example, have adapted its production line to produce hand sanitiser to help meet demand. Examples like this are resonating well with the general public, and retailers that are putting business to one side to help the greater good are likely to come out of this very well.

What other tech will gain importance as retailers come out of lockdown?

Different sectors have different needs, but inventory management is a common thread. In order to fulfil orders, retailers need visibility across their stores, warehouses and what’s showing online. Transparency across the whole business is critical right now. For grocers, analytics will be a big focus so they can understand what should be on which shelves and flows of items sold that day. Using data and artificial intelligence can help them see what should be there and what they need to order.

How do you think retailers have performed during this pandemic?

The coronavirus hit the retail sector rapidly. Some traditional retailers have found it hard to adapt, but we’ve also seen some readjust quickly. Business models have been completely shaken up. Warehouses have been restructured with staff being deployed elsewhere in the business; and leaders have made quick decisions to address the new social distancing regulations put in place.

Your advice for retailers going forward?

There will be a lot of retailers looking at what went well, and what didn’t. They will review how they can be more agile and how they can modify more quickly. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of a good quality online offering; so retailers that aren’t maximising their online presence should be looking at that as an immediate action. Retailers which are able to offer a no-contact option – things like self-service and click and collect – may be more appealing to consumers for the foreseeable future, so if this isn’t in place, it should be addressed.


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