5 technologies that have seen a COVID-19 resurgence

QR codes, AR and contactless payments all offer opportunities for safe shopping experiences

In December 2011, CNN reported on a QR code study, noting that potential users were either apathetic or struggling with the process. Nearly 8 in 10 of the study’s college-age respondents — those apparently “immersed in technology and bombarded by marketing” — didn’t understand what the matrix barcodes were or what to do with them.

“Furthermore,” the article stated, “about 75 percent said they were unlikely to scan a QR code in the future.”

Imagine their surprise if they’ve been in a restaurant during the recent pandemic. And that’s just one example of technology that has received fresh or renewed interest thanks to COVID-19. In addition to QR-based software, there’s augmented reality, options for contactless payment — even a return to drive-in entertainment. Each expands on an opportunity, but at the same time, can make shopping, dining and other experiences increasingly solo rather than social.

Retail technology

Check out more of the latest retail tech used in stores here.

QR codes

QR-based software has been turning up on restaurant signage, tables and counters, allowing diners to use their own mobile devices to view menus, send an order to the kitchen and pay. The aim is a friction-free, contactless dining experience. And it’s not just restaurants: In late summer, CVS announced it would introduce PayPal QR code technology in its 8,200 U.S. stores in the fourth quarter of 2020. In hotels, QR codes are being used to communicate with the front desk, order room service, check in, demonstrate in-room features and appliances, and more.

“No one wants to touch anything,” says Mara Devitt, senior partner at retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle. “Everyone is so health conscious, and our retailers have responded admirably, very quickly, to adjust.”

But QR codes offer something more: the ability to provide additional and enriched information. Here, Devitt points to a pharmacy retailer, where consumers might scan a QR code to access a survey that helps them explore vitamins and supplements. The technology also trains consumers to stop, take a moment and recognize how useful the extended information can be. As for the impact on the store? It impacts staffing, she says, with associates not having to answer questions or be experts.

BOPIS and curbside pickup

Tech that actually makes shopping more convenient? Yes, please. Just make it fast. Once consumers experience options like curbside pickup and buy online, pick up in store, Devitt says, it will be hard to get them to go back.

Devitt recently visited a large chain department store that had removed the curbside pickup options it had put in place for COVID-19 upon reopening. The immediate negative reaction, she says, caused the store to quickly reinstate the curbside choice.

“Customers are finding it extremely helpful for pickups and returns,” she says. “I’m telling retailers to really understand the cost of each of these. Do you really understand the cost of direct-to-consumer shipping versus pick up in store? And how do we incent our consumers to align with not only what’s best for them, but also what makes sense for us?”

Beyond that, she points out, how do retailers make curbside a positive customer experience touchpoint, still showing what’s new, suggesting additional items and encouraging them to return?

Scan-and-go and self-checkout

In recent years, scan-and-go has moved forward with fits, starts and sputters. In recent months, however, the technology has sparked renewed interest; it appeals not only to those want to avoid touching anything, but also those who don’t want to congregate in a line.

It helps that technologies are being improved to reduce shrink as well as overpayment, Devitt says. Even so, “I think there’s a learning curve on both the consumer side and the retailer side before we perfect it.”

Walmart is attempting to meet customers at the comfort level of their choice with its new open checkout experience. Customers are greeted by a host, but then decide whether they want to check out alone or with an associate.

Paula Rosenblum, co-founder and managing partner of RSR Research, sees two sides to Walmart’s recent experiment: It does meet the needs of shoppers who desire less physical interaction. But Walmart has also been generous with its employees, she says, and therefore may want to have fewer of them overall. She doesn’t consider it a solely altruistic step.

Augmented reality

In these times, who couldn’t use a bit of escapism — or the chance to test products without visiting a store? Augmented reality experiences increasingly allow shoppers to “try on,” say, jewelry from Kendra Scott through their mobile devices. There’s the Kohl’s AR Virtual Closet, a recent collaboration with Snapchat, as well as an uptick in use of Ulta’s GLAMlab beauty tool.

It also can be used simply for fun. Consider Amazon’s Augmented Reality app, which included pumpkins printed on the outside of Halloween delivery boxes. Users could scan a QR code to bring the pumpkin to “life.”

Devitt notes that AR is still dependent on consumers having the right device to experience it. “And a lot of us don’t yet. We’re still a bit away from broad adoption of that. But as with some of these other things, it has its place for some solutions.” Those places may well expand; CommerceNext and Exponea reported that 21 percent of U.S. retailers expected to invest in augmented or virtual reality for their company’s online store, up from 8 percent in January.

Drive-ins

New tech? Perhaps. Resurgence? For certain. Drive-ins have allowed for experiences such as concerts, movie premieres and church services. In some cases, they’ve incorporated mobile for tickets and check-ins. In others, these events have taken place even in the parking lots of retailers. Once again, it’s being together while still being technically apart.

So where does all this leave us? For any technology resurgence to stick, people have to first use it.

Rosenblum says she’s been focused on truly contactless shopping during the pandemic, and hasn’t returned to enough restaurants or physical store locations to see changes in action. Her thinking? “Whatever gets people out of the store the fastest is what’s going to be on the rise.”

Rather than focusing on the renewal of tech like QR or AR, then, she advises retailers to focus on — and perhaps invest in — issues of supply chain agility, AI/machine learning, order management, workforce management and compliance.

Contactless selling may be the rage for now — especially in segments like grocery. The challenge, she says, “has never been about finding the market for it. It’s always been about, ‘How do I make money doing it?’”

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