The post-pandemic future: Brick-and-mortar stores will reinvent themselves with AI

The post-pandemic future: Brick-and-mortar stores will reinvent themselves with AI

Diane J. Brisebois is president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada

The pandemic has forever changed the way we live and shop, and even after Covid times, we can expect that stores—and how we interact with them—will be radically different. We expect some pandemic trends to survive and new ones to emerge. Retail locations will be less like stores and more like showrooms, offering a streamlined shopping experience made easy and efficient through the presence of new retail technology.

Although distancing between employees and shoppers is likely to stay in place long into the future, the customer-staff interaction will remain central to the experience. Where this is not possible, technology will certainly fill the gap. We expect to see more stores install cameras that measure and guarantee compliance with safety distances—if there are too many people in close proximity, these cameras can issue real-time messages to remind them about distancing.

The use of robots and other artificial intelligence is one of the most exciting opportunities for retail, offering a chance for store owners to create safe environments for shoppers while also enhancing the visitor experience. More stores will be outfitted with robots that can kill viruses and bacteria with ultraviolet light—they can be used on store merchandise, on packaging, on door handles. Retail owners can also use artificial intelligence to provide personalized product recommendations for customers, a tactic pioneered by Amazon. A touch-free experience will become the norm: new technologies will offer mobile pay-and-go options, where customers can scan a product’s barcode from the retailer’s app using Bluetooth and RFID, then pay with a card or digital cash.

Illustration by Maria Nguyen

We’ll see transformed brick-and-mortar stores in the market, especially as click-and-collect becomes the norm. Many existing stores will transform into “dark stores”—traditional retail spaces converted into local fulfillment centres. The stores that remain will offer super-engaging, safely distanced retail experiences. Stores will appeal to shoppers by offering guest speakers, live podcast recordings and literary readings to build a sense of community. Stores will display select marquee objects, livestream events hosted by staff, and encourage at-home browsing. To supplement the in-store experience, retailers will create virtual showrooms, virtual tours, even virtual fittings. AR, or augmented reality, allows customers to create virtual photographic avatars on a touchless screen to sample makeup shades or try on a pair of pants.

As consumers return to retailers’ brick-and-mortar environments, they will want an abundance of flexibility: platform choices, payment choices, pickup choices. Serving customers through all channels is how retail will survive and grow.

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