How wayfinding technology could reduce time in stores and COVID risk

Innovative retailers adapt to shifting consumer preferences
Craig Guillot
NRF Contributor
August 12, 2020

While consumers are eager to return to physical stores, many have concerns around safety and generally want to limit their physical exposure and human contact. A study by global research firm Ipsos found that 62 percent of surveyed consumers said they would stop shopping at a retailer that wasn’t taking health and safety seriously.

A survey by McKinsey also found that three-quarters of surveyed consumers have tried a new shopping behavior since the start of COVID. Nearly 60 percent said convenience was a driver in switching places to shop, while around 20 percent said they shopped a new retailer in the past three months because it was less crowded or offered good delivery or pickup options.

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“In this environment, customers want to feel safe,” says Shelley Kohan, founder and CEO of Shelmark Consulting. “They want to get in and out, use mobile checkout, scan and go, anything that can help expedite their shopping.”

Kohan says it’s important for retailers to demonstrate their concerns for safety. Several have implemented strong safety measures that include mask requirements, glass dividers and policies that support social distancing and limit numbers of consumers in the store. Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are among retailers that stood out in the Ipsos report for their safety measures.

Upgraded apps

In addition to signage and policies, many retailers are also looking to app upgrades and in-store technologies to help expedite traffic. The Home Depot’s app, ranked as the top retail mobile app in 2019 by Forrester, features wayfinding capabilities that allow users to quickly search products and identify their exact location in the store with a navigable map. Tractor Supply Co. announced in June it would launch a debut mobile app that would eventually include in-store wayfinding and augmented reality. Target and Sam’s Club also use mapping and beacons in some locations to support better wayfinding.

Manhattan grocery stores Westside Market and Fairway Market recently upgraded their in-store apps to help shoppers quickly find items and expedite their shopping experience without any social interaction. The stores use technology by SIRL, an indoor GPS system that makes stores searchable with step-by-step guidance.

In collaboration with FutureProof Retail’s mobile self-checkout solution, the app lets consumers find products, pay and conduct the entire experience without any human interaction.

“Scan and go is up, searching is up and we’re finding the amount of times shoppers use the app to find a product, instead of asking an employee, has increased five times since [mid-March],” says SIRL co-founder and CEO Michael Wang.

SIRL’s wayfinding system can navigate customers within 12 inches of a product and provide optimized routes for shopping lists so they can find products with the shortest path through the store. The “Take Me Function” offers step-by-step navigation to any product in the store with advanced routing and the ability to handle multi-floor locations.

In the five months since Westside Market activated SIRL, it has seen a five-fold increase in search usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The app offers customers a more efficient shopping experience that saves time and money and removes frustration, says Michael Penner, director of retail and technology at Fairway Market. “It also allows our employees to be more productive and helpful,” he says. “They know when and where they are needed, and it makes the experience more rewarding for everyone.”

Analytical benefits

SIRL’s application uses proprietary, low-energy Bluetooth technology that works on Apple and Android phones with a free-to-download app. It is accurate up to inches and can also signal employees for assistance with the location of the customer. Deployment includes placing nodes throughout the store roughly every 15 to 30 feet then powering the system with software that embeds the wayfinding capability, background tracking and real-time promotion capability.

SIRL is currently deployed in stores ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 square feet and has branched into Europe with virtual training and setup. “It’s flexible and can work in any size location,” Wang says. “It can be as little as a two-week process with shipping nodes, training and app integration.”

In addition to helping consumers find their way around the store and reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure, wayfinding technologies can help retailers learn more about their shoppers, obtain real-time actionable insights and visualize shopper behavior and product performance.

While such technologies have been in use, COVID-19 has increased their pace of adoption, says Brian Kilcourse, managing partner at Retail Systems Research. Top retailers have been exploring the concept for the past few years, but the pandemic has increased the value proposition for both stores and consumers.

Because consumers must opt-in by downloading an app and enabling location tracking, there must be an incentive to do so. “For consumers, technology has to be easier to use than to ignore,” Kilcourse says. “And if there’s anything we should have learned in the past four months watching consumers react to the coronavirus, it’s that they don’t like being told what to do.”

Removing friction

Some of the best wayfinding applications mimic the online experience in the store and provide recommendations, easy payment options and a convenient experience, says Jonathan Cohen, senior vice president of business development at SIRL. “We’re able to provide them a frictionless experience that is just a lot more relevant in these times,” he says. “People are used to buying things on Amazon, getting recommendations and making their lives easier, so we’re helping bricks-and-mortar stores bridge that gap.”

Even when the pandemic does subside, the leap to new technologies will have staying power and be a strong part of the future of retail, Kohan says. “It doesn’t have to be an app or necessarily driven by technology,” she says. “There are many ways to support navigation in the store. The future offers us a new opportunity.”

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