US-based services company Cognizant Technology Solutions works to help businesses implement modern operating and technology models for the digital era. Retail Insight Network talked with Cognizant VP and head of products & resources Rohit Gupta to find out how technology is impacting retail during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, from creating a ‘new normal’ to hygienically enhancing the customer experience.

Jessie Paige: What part will technology play in creating a ‘new normal’ for retail?

Rohit Gupta: The coronavirus pandemic has left no industry untouched, but retail has been one of the hardest hit, with brands left relying entirely on their e-commerce offering and customer loyalty just to stay afloat in these extremely challenging times.

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It was suggested at the Retail Expo virtual conference recently that high street retailers will be required to change radically in the aftermath of the pandemic. In order to do so, technology will play an enormous and vital role.

Digital integrity, robust data structures and the ability to create a culture of continuous improvements in consumer experience through rapid releases is essential. Many retailers still work with legacy technology, but to cope with the new environment, they will need to transition to platform-based estates with a few core platforms.

JP: Could you tell me more about your idea of an AR fitting room? Is this something that is already being implemented?

RG: There have been numerous innovations in virtual fitting rooms delivered by AR in recent years to allow customers to try on clothes virtually and a more widespread adoption of AR by retailers was already on the rise before the Covid-19 outbreak. For example, Gucci added an AR function to its mobile app to enable customers to try on its popular Ace Sneakers virtually.

Even before the pandemic, it was expected that the global virtual fitting room market would reach over $10 billion by 2026. With increased regulation to manage hygiene and social distancing measures in-store, we expect that this figure has already risen and will only continue to do so as these innovations become all the more important given some people might no longer feel safe trying on clothes in fitting rooms.

Since AR, AI and VR innovations can address some customer concerns around health and hygiene, we will likely see an increase in the adoption of such technologies into the fitting room.

To allow customers to try on items virtually, retailers should consider introducing technology which scans an actual product or barcode in-store on customers’ smartphones to bring up details of the product as well as a visualisation of it on a 3D avatar. This could allow customers to “try on” as many products as they want without any timing constraints. It would also allow social distancing rules to be followed more easily.

JP: How will blockchain and IoT help prioritise hygiene?

RG: With hygiene maintaining first position on the priorities list for retailers post-lockdown, blockchain will become an increasingly valuable tool for tracing the journey of products, so that customers have much better visibility over where any item has come from and where it has been on its journey.

IoT will also be vital in providing sensor data to monitor whether customers are adhering to social distancing. This will be a much quicker, easier and more accurate method than watching shoppers with human staff.

JP: How else will technology assist retail in regaining momentum post-coronavirus?

RG: A key imperative for the retailers would be translating in-store experiences online.  In an environment where it is inevitable customers will spend less time in-store, technology needs to respond and reduce the “experience gap”. Experiences also need to be seamless across channels including web or mobile incorporate accurate promotions, accommodate social media integration, be accessible, secure and responsive.

Ultimately, technology alone will not entice customers back into the store – the customer experience will become the biggest factor moving forward.

JP: Is high street likely to return to normality, or is the future of retail purely online?

RG: Before the pandemic hit, the high street was already suffering from reduced footfall and declining in-store sales as consumers turned to the convenience of online shopping. To tackle this, brands focused on improving customer experience by offering something new and exciting. The pandemic has again highlighted the importance of improving customer experience to attract consumers back post-lockdown, but with the safety of staff and welfare of shoppers of utmost importance, this may look a little different to what retailers had planned prior to the pandemic.

With one-fifth of UK retailers not planning to reopen after lockdown, we expect the high street will be made up of fewer but much larger stores, with the concept of the megastore becoming much more familiar to UK shoppers, however, these megastores will not be physical stores. Brands will increasingly adopt display-only concepts that encourage customers to look, but order and try on at home or try on virtually. Smaller stores left unopened will be used as ‘dark stores’ – more convenient and local warehouses used for fulfilment to improve the e-commerce, home delivery experience.

JP: What is the most important thing that retailers should be doing right now in terms of using technology?

RG: As social distancing becomes a more embedded cultural norm and as consumers seek ensured hygiene, health, security and trust, how retailers and brands amend their customer experiences today will have implications on future loyalty-building and growth efforts. In the new world of social distancing, traditional customer experience offerings are in some cases no longer possible or, at the very least, no longer of value to shoppers.

Retailers and brands should now utilise technology to help them shift their experiences to what consumers will value most in a post-Covid-19 world.

It is uncertain what lasting changes to consumer behaviours Covid-19 will leave in its wake. However, there are some experience-oriented services on which retailers should focus their strategies in the new reality and beyond. These include offering increased convenience to shoppers with successful contactless delivery options and consultative engagement and advice from virtual store associates delivered by chatbots and AI-driven automation technology.