The COVID-19 pandemic brought on new and unprecedented challenges for retailers, from fluctuating consumer demand to the need for a safety-centric, in-store experience. These challenges sparked several new forms of technological innovation. The new and creative technologies that were adopted in 2020 as part of an industry-wide emergency response have rapidly become the standard for retail success and will continue to shape retail’s future after the pandemic as well.

As part of Zebra’s 2021 Shopper Study (volume one), 5,000 shoppers, retail executives and store associates were surveyed to uncover what is next for the industry. An incredible 60% of retailers reported that the pandemic has accelerated their technology spending plans. Our study identified the top three technologies that were adopted by retailers as part of their pandemic response. These technologies will prove to be indispensable beyond 2021.

Self-Checkout Solutions
As social distancing became a crucial part of the shopping experience in 2020, stores implemented new policies such as enforcing new capacity guidelines and designating aisles by the flow of traffic. By far, self-checkout became the most impactful of these changes and quickly turned into the preferred choice for many safety-minded consumers. During the pandemic, self-checkout kiosks allowed retailers to minimize person-to-person exposure between shoppers and employees, helping to create a healthier and safer environment and minimize the spread of the virus in their communities.

With an overwhelming 91% of consumers surveyed saying they will continue to use self-checkout in the future, we can expect this solution to become the standard long after the pandemic has passed. Self-checkout encourages social distancing and speeds up check-out processes to keep the shopper experience streamlined and easy. In turn, the shopping experience is improved, and retailers can feel confident they are providing the tools to protect their employees and customers.

Personal Shopping Devices
In the pre-pandemic retail environment, store associates could offer a personalized shopping experience by providing product selection guidance that increased final purchasing amounts, reduced buyer’s remorse and returns, and fostered levels of brand loyalty. This ranged from a home improvement store employee providing guidance on the tools needed for a certain project, to a clothing store associate helping customers find their correct sizes. However, the pandemic significantly impacted this personal experience as retailers worked to reduce the number of associates on the floor and encouraged social distancing.

With many shoppers choosing to minimize their human contact during in-store shopping, personal shopping devices allowed retailers to continue to provide custom experiences while keeping employees and customers safe. The study found that 22% of shoppers reported using a personal shopping device in the last year, and 88% will continue using these solutions in the future.

In 2021, personal shopping devices will allow retailers to continue providing tailored shopping experiences while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Even when the pandemic has passed, we can expect these devices to remain integral to in-store processes, as they can free up associates’ time without sacrificing customer service. During a busy shift, having personal shopping devices in the hands of customers gives associates peace of mind that even when their attention is elsewhere, shoppers are receiving the best experience possible.

Inventory Visibility Technologies
Over 75% of customers said they desire to get in and out of retail stores as quick as possible. It’s clear that in-store shopping is no longer a casual and leisurely event. Instead, it’s an often tiring and stressful experience. With new organizational and safety protocols that can be fatiguing to shoppers, coupled with the constant risk of exposure to COVID-19, discovering an empty shelf or out of stock product can be incredibly frustrating. And with tensions running high, one bad experience with a retailer could be enough to cause customers to stop using the brand.

When retailers employ real-time inventory visibility technologies, they give their customers the opportunity to check in-store availability before they visit the store or while they are shopping through their smartphone. They can avoid the frustration and disappointment of going all the way to a store during a chaotic pandemic only to return home empty-handed. Associates can use this technology to ensure they are providing the best customer service possible, during the pandemic and beyond. In fact, eight out of 10 associates agreed that real-time inventory visibility would help them provide a better experience. Visibility will also prove to be a critical part of retailers’ inventory accuracy and fraud prevention strategies by allowing them to see when in-store inventory levels do not align with purported sales.

The technologies adopted by retailers during the pandemic have empowered them to survive this crisis and actively succeed emerging from it. While many of them certainly gained popularity during the pandemic, these solutions are not short term as their value and impact will prove to be just as powerful in a post-pandemic world. They will be standard practices for industry leaders for years to come.