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Tech at the heart of retail recovery

Josh Bunce. CEO and Founder of INURFACE Group

Retailers, big and small, must embrace technology if we as a nation are to recover and operate despite COVID-19’s lasting impact.

Six months ago, the position we are currently in both nationally and globally, would have been unimaginable. For the UK retail industry there were concerns on many fronts; we continued to juggle the ever evolving market, the demands of the consumer and competition from online and overseas competitors but we could never have predicted the considerations we are now having to make.

More than 7000 high streets across the UK closed their shops on the 26th of March. Shops, big and small, with the exception of a few essential retailers, were forced to cease operations in an attempt to support nationwide efforts to quell the rise of coronavirus and return our nation to health.

It’s about working together

While bolted doors, closed shutters and darkened stores might have demonstrated the front-line impact of these closures, what must also be considered is the knock-on impacts of these shops closing. 

The suppliers, the subcontractors, the owners of premises who all previously relied on retail outlets being operational and open also felt the immediate impacts. All are now mutually invested in ensuring a return to business as quickly and safely as allowed.

It is thanks to the mutual force and knowledge within all these businesses that so many solutions have emerged. As a nation, not ones to sit back, we have developed ways to support businesses thanks to a variety of applications. The rule books of retail are being ripped up as we enter a new phase and technology is proving invaluable to support the people behind the businesses.

Entering recovery

Almost three months on, on the 15th of June, we entered the next chapter in recovery for the UK’s retail economy, as nonessential stores began to open again. An exciting turning point but also a challenging one. It is also a phase we are likely to remain in for weeks, months and possibly years. 

As an industry we’ve got one chance to get it right. If shops open and the rate of R goes up, not only will our industry-wide actions be called into question but we will also be likely to be forced into closure again; something as businesses and an economy we simply can’t afford to consider.

Today, and for the foreseeable future we are now, as shaped by Government advice and allowances, faced with inevitable questions around how we try to ensure our doors can reopen and stay open. We need to guarantee our customers both safety and peace of mind and encourage them to return with their custom.

In terms of the solutions emerging, what quickly became obvious was that it wasn’t necessarily about reinventing the wheel. Instead utilising technology that already exists. Solutions that UK businesses often already had access to and an understanding of but shaped to fit the current situation. It was about being clever, understanding the problems and utilising the technological resources to combat these challenges.

The solutions can largely be divided three ways in terms of tech; effective health monitoring, efficient people management and communications. Applied flexibly and supported by the people in stores across the country, these solutions have the ability to transform our retail sector into the safest version of itself ready for the customer.

1. Effective health monitoring

The application of technology to monitor the ‘health’ of retail users is something that has never been needed before on this scale. Technology which might normally be reserved for a healthcare environment has suddenly become much more widely applicable and is likely to be part of a longer term normal. 

Vital for retailers as a first port of call to minimise the risk of exposure to those using and working within shops, the store’s installation of technology to support this may be a short-term outlay but a long-term investment. 

Solutions including fast and unobtrusive monitoring of body temperature at a store entrance can mean that individuals who may be carriers of COVID-19 can be easily identified before they enter an outlet.

It’s about a first line of defence. Thanks to the technology, data can be viewed and utilised almost instantaneously; the difference potentially between the containment and spreading of infection as stores can be kept ‘clean’.

2. Efficient people management

Once in store what then becomes vital is how all those are kept safe while still able to do the task they set out to do.

From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak we have seen attempts to effectively manage the distancing of people, controlling crowds and limitation of unnecessary contact – often ineffectively.

Retail spaces have had to adapt to this in ways they were never designed for. Store capacities have been hugely reduced, store flows amended and initially, often extra staff were needed to enforce and manage these changes. 

Long term technology to manage this new normal is both cost and time effective. Systems can be installed to monitor and control the flow of people at single and multiple entrances, as well as their distribution in certain areas. Adaptable depending on the time of day, the current guidance or the shops requirements technology used in this way removes any chance of human error, ensuring compliance with government recommendations and optimal safety. 

3. Communication

Arguably the most important of the three for the health of the retail economy, without our customers we simply would not be able to survive.

Technology to highlight activity in stores isn’t something new. It’s something we have seen more and more of in UK retail outlets as they compete with online retailers for sales and rely on visual content to draw the shoppers in. Previously this may have been focused primarily on deals and aesthetics. The focus shift for many will now be to highlight effectively the actions taken to keep customers safe, the requests being made to support this effort and the justifications for both. 

Use of products such as digital displays at entrances can easily explain the measures being taken to ensure the safety of all in store and ensure understanding and compliance. Integrated with other technology, such as hand sanitation units or queue control systems, using easily understandable and visual displays on screens can prevent panic as well as increase co-operation. It is here we will be able to reassure our customers and ensure they continue to use our services.

As an industry we have one chance. We need to ensure all retailers, big and small, take management of these risks seriously and work together as an industry. However, the reality is the solution isn’t always going to be the same. What will work for one retailer won’t work for another but what seems obvious is that for most a level of tech will be helpful and adaptable, depending on size, budget and expectation. 

It is a challenge for all but not one that is beyond us. If done right it will eventually ensure the return of a successful retail economy across the UK. We may even be stronger for the experience and able to see some positives from this incredibly difficult time. 

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