With more people opting to shop online than ever before, it’s clear retail and shopper expectations are evolving and in need of new technology innovation. This was made clear after the closure of thousands of retail locations across the country, including what used to be household brands like Payless, Gymboree, and Toys ‘R’ Us. The introduction of the suburban mall as a nostalgic artifact in Stranger Things makes brick-and-mortar retailers feel like a relic of yesteryear. On the other hand, the opening of over 3,000 new stores this past year, more than the number that closed, indicates a positive growth in global retail markets that suggest another narrative.
Customers are still shopping at physical store locations, but they’re looking for an experience that can accommodate both online and offline expectations. Brick-and-mortar stores aren’t obsolete, but they are struggling to adapt. Customers expect greater personalization and instant availability of product information. Online shopping gives consumers the feeling of infinite options and endless variety. Online checkout is straightforward. Often payment information is saved online, with discount codes easily applicable to the shopping cart, making online shopping the go-to experience, especially through mobile devices.
Rethinking a company’s brick-and-mortar strategy doesn’t mean closing stores or limiting new store openings. Instead, retailers can leverage technology to improve both in-store operations and customer experiences; blending online and offline technologies has become an integral strategy for the survival of retail companies.
Retailers can bring the same sense of variety and choice into a brick-and-mortar store by providing accurate inventory information and visibility to customers. Currently, most retailers average around 65%-70% accuracy, which can lead to frustration as customers search high and low for an item.
While brick-and-mortar stores can’t duplicate the ease of shopping from a smartphone, they can still deliver effortless, personal shopping experiences. RAIN RFID empowers customers and sales associates by showing them which items are in stock in every store, and the item’s exact location in real time. With RAIN RFID tagged items, detailed product information and specifications are available to aid customers in comparing items and making informed decisions. Retailers also can streamline checkout, making the process as easy as dropping an item into a basket, or even walking out of the store with the item to complete a purchase.
One of the most effective ways retailers have merged technology with their existing locations is through the rise of BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store). Using BOPIS, shoppers at Macy’s, undeterred by slight price differences, spend 125% of their original order when they pick up an item in person. By fulfilling purchases in-store, brick-and-mortar stores also cut costs on shipping, packaging, and delivery.
While digital sales grew, Target’s ability to utilize inventory in its existing store locations to fulfill online orders resulted in a 40% reduction in costs. And retailers like Zara also have been processing orders in-store, using existing retail locations as mini fulfillment centers. When a product is out of stock at a warehouse, but the same product is being sold at a store location near the customer, the store can ship the item.
In order to seamlessly merge online and in-store customer experiences, retailers need technology to support tracking of in-store and in-warehouse inventory. An accurate inventory system is the foundation of a successful BOPIS and omnichannel program, as it raises inventory accuracy to 95%-99%. Retailers also can use a single system to account for all merchandise.
RAIN RFID can make shopping at a physical retail location easier, but customer experience doesn’t have to be solely defined by ease. Stores also can take personalization services up a notch by providing experiences that consumers couldn’t get through online shopping alone. For example, some stores now implement smart fitting rooms and magic mirrors to extend personalized services beyond a customer’s smartphone. RAIN RFID readers can detect items brought into fitting rooms and automate the offering of different sizes, colors or complementary products.
Magic mirrors empower customers through fun and interactive digital displays, providing information on items brought in, and giving them the option to interact with staff for more assistance. Smart mirrors also can provide shoppers the nudge they need to complete a purchase, alerting them of personal discount codes based on the items they’re considering, personal shopping history or the location of the store.
Tracking inventory has other benefits. Operations like loss prevention and merchandising have seen major improvements using a combination of RAIN RFID and video. When retailers know exactly what is leaving the store and when, they can be proactive about loss prevention strategies and account for cases of internal and external theft. Even something as simple as alerting a sales associate that someone has entered the fitting room with too many items, or items that don’t belong, can be the first line of defense to stop theft before it happens.
Insight directly from the store also can lead to fast and more efficient merchandising operations. By tracking the fitting room entrance, or transitions from the stockroom to the sales floor, merchandisers can see patterns in sizing decisions and can predict the type of inventory needed to populate the store in the future. This same technology can help guide sales associates by sending them alerts about items that need to be re-shelved, or specific stock that is running low.
Macy’s is one of the early adopters of RAIN RFID; its sales associates walk through the store to count tagged inventory quickly and efficiently. Streamlining their duties frees up time for them to help shoppers, and makes them more knowledgeable about the movement and popularity of merchandise.
Closing brick-and-mortar locations and slimming down inventory levels cuts down on costs and overhead, but it’s a defensive business strategy that doesn’t signal company growth, doesn’t provide for customers and doesn’t competitively position the retailer against online-only retailers. More transparency and responsiveness around inventory and purchasing is at the core of what drives better sales and positive customer interactions.
Smart retailers know that integrating technology within their physical stores entices both the digitally savvy shopper as well as their entire customer base. Brick-and-mortar retail locations are not relics. Rather, with the technology to support them, they are re-emerging as assets with the ability to handle robust sales, movement of merchandise and the increasingly informed consumer.
Ashley Burkle is the Senior Manager of Retail Solutions at Impinj, a leading provider of RAIN RFID technologies that delivers digital life to the physical world through the Internet of Things. She works with retail partners and service companies to develop solutions to increase sales, improve efficiencies and enhance shopper experiences around the world.