Woman in a safety mask looking at clothes in a shop. New post covid-19 normality

Due to the global pandemic, this year has experienced acceleration across the retail industry in ways no predictions came close to capturing, from unprecedented shifts in consumer behaviors to new standards in-store.

According to a new shopper survey from Zebra Technologies, today’s shoppers are leaving stores empty-handed due to finding items out-of-stock, long checkout lines, and an inability to find what they are looking for. Notably, today’s shopper is prioritizing safety, speed and convenience above all, preferring retailers who offer easy returns and online retailers who have a brick-and-mortar location.

With so many changes and new needs for retailers, the largest retail acceleration in the pandemic may be in technology investments. Here, Rob Armstrong, vice president of portfolio marketing at Zebra Technologies, discusses consumer trends, retail’s heightened need for predictive technology, and why he predicts retail will continue to invest.

WWD: How has predictive technology become vital for retailers especially given the current environment in the pandemic?

Rob Armstrong: According to our 13th annual Global Shopper Study, the pandemic accelerated technology spending plans for six-in-10 retailers. The pandemic has only further exacerbated the need of retailers to have up-to-date labor forecasting and workforce scheduling technologies that can predict customer demand at a given location based on a variety of real-time data points — including the severity of the pandemic at a local level ­— as compared to traditional models that simply look at the retailer’s historical data.

Zebra’s innovative software and hardware solutions help retailers enhance execution in each and every one of their stores by unifying teams, dynamically adjusting priorities and delivering results with a powerful digital backbone. Inventories become fully visible and shelves properly merchandised, and associates are empowered to elevate the customer experience and stay focused on what is most important.

Rob Armstrong

Rob Armstrong, vice president of portfolio marketing at Zebra Technologies.  courtesy Image.

WWD: What are the new needs of today’s retailers?

R.A.: The pandemic has amplified consumer behavior that was already shifting long before the pandemic — with shoppers prioritizing convenience, speed of delivery and ease of finding the products they need. While the world, and the retail industry, have been rocked by the market disruption resulting from COVID-19, shoppers are now seeking a safe, speedy and convenient shopping experience while maintaining basic expectations that the items that they want will be readily available, at the best price and with the easiest and fastest way to complete the purchase.

Inventory and labor are the largest capital and operating expenses for retailers — and major drivers of customer satisfaction — so they require constant optimization. Customers expect that they can find an associate that can help them right away, and they expect that what they want will be on the shelf, so the real trick is finding a way to achieve both of these goals to optimize the overall customer experience with a limited labor force. Asking associates to focus too much on what is on the shelf will impede their ability to serve customers in the store, and the opposite is true as well.

Retailers know this intimately, it’s nothing new to them. The stakes are now just higher, and customers are less forgiving and patient than in the past. In response, retailers increasingly need a technology partner that can help them connect store execution with their customer experience strategy.

WWD: From your perspective, how will these needs continue to evolve?

R.A.: In the near term, apparel retailers are going to have to contend with large amounts of unsold inventory due to the lower pandemic-related demand over the past nine months. It is key that they have up-to-date store execution technology in place to help them streamline promotions and new product displays to ensure the best-possible sales outcomes. Gartner estimates that task management systems enable retailers to recover the 1 to 3 percent of sales typically lost due to poor execution of corporate initiatives at the store-level so this could make a meaningful difference for retailers as they head in to 2021.

WWD: How have you seen the need for this technology accelerate in the pandemic?

R.A.: We absolutely have seen this trend continue to grow — both with retailers and associates. Retailers are actively moving to improve shopper experiences through technology, from in-store innovations through online integration to emerging technologies that connect the two together. COVID-19 has catapulted shoppers’ usage and affinity for technologies that provide convenience and efficiency — including mobile ordering, self-checkouts and appointment scheduling, three technologies that shoppers were previously more apprehensive to use before the pandemic. Given consumer desire for safety, we’ve also seen a spike in demand for self-checkouts and contactless payment options. Meanwhile, the majority of forward-looking retail executives view smart checkout, AI-powered workforce software and prescriptive analytics as key emerging technology by 2025.

WWD: How does Zebra differentiate itself in the market? 

R.A.: Zebra empowers the front line of retail/e-commerce to achieve a performance edge so brands can deliver differentiated service and care to thrive into the future. Our technology gives retailers visible operations, allowing them to sense what is happening in their operations by capturing data about people, processes, and things in real-time. We also provide the ability to connect intelligence to better analyze data generated by this new level of real-time visibility and deliver actionable insights that lead to smarter decisions.

Our solutions deliver optimized workflows with insights directly to mobile workers, when and where they are needed, empowering them to act in the most connected and productive ways. By enabling real-time communication to frontline associates and incorporating mobile computing, barcode scanning, RFID, thermal printing, plus location, temperature and motion-sensing technologies, Zebra helps retailers improve execution, elevate the shopping experience, track and manage inventory as well as boost supply chain efficiency.

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