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Mobile, Voice, Facial Recognition: Contactless Options Could Thrive Even Post-COVID-19

  • June 3, 2020 at 8:39 AM EDT
  • By Bryan Wassel
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COVID-19 has accelerated the contactless revolution: 84% of Americans (77% among global consumers) now expect to increase their use of touchless technologies to avoid physical contact for the remainder of the pandemic, with 55% (63% globally) planning to continue doing so afterward, according to a survey by Capgemini. More than two-thirds (69%) of retail executives also expect enthusiasm for contactless options will continue.

“In the last few years things like shop and scan and curbside pickup have popped up, but the numbers vary wildly depending on the retailer,” said Shannon Warner, VP of Retail and Consumer Goods at Capgemini Invent in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. COVID-19 has “dramatically accelerated that shift and moved consumer segments that would have otherwise never adopted some of these contactless experiences. While it forced them to do it, I think many of them are having very good experiences.”

One important segment that has been trying contactless technology is older shoppers. In general these consumers tend to be less tech-savvy, but being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 forced them to try options they may have avoided before — and also made them more comfortable with their usage going forward.

Mobile Technology Is Well-Established, And Still Going Strong

One of the more common contactless technologies is mobile: 66% of global shoppers said they prefer using their devices over human interactions and touchscreens during the pandemic, and 63% will continue doing so in the future. An October 2019 survey found that many shoppers are already comfortable using their phones for a number of tasks, including:

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  • Finding product information: 73%;
  • Making payments: 70%;
  • In-store navigation: 66%;
  • Self-checkout: 66%; and
  • Self-identification: 46%.

Mobile offers a number of clear benefits for consumers: they’re comfortable with the interface; it’s convenient to use something they’re carrying anyway; and they know no one else has touched their device, which makes the shopping experience feel safer. For retailers, leveraging shoppers’ mobile devices for functions like self-checkout offers advantages that go beyond creating a smoother, safer experience for customers.

“The benefit to the retailer is that they have reduced use of their own infrastructure — they don’t have to have POS terminals and the network to support the operation of the equipment within their stores, so they don’t have [responsibility for] the maintenance of the devices,” said Warner. “There’s definite cost savings if they can get to the point where there’s a big enough chunk of the population using these contactless technologies.”

Facial Recognition Has Potential, But The Trust Problem Must Be Overcome

Retailers have been much more cautious about adopting facial recognition, and with good reason: the October 2019 study found that 59% of global consumers say they would avoid a store if it used this technology. However, the realities of COVID-19 may change this perception: 52% of consumers now say they would actually prefer facial recognition for authentication during the pandemic, with 39% saying this preference will last beyond the immediate crisis.

Facial recognition technology holds great potential in the current environment. It can be used to maintain social distancing and perform traffic counts, enable seamless payments and assist with shelf management.

Making shoppers more comfortable with facial recognition technology is in retailers’ best interest, and they can overcome many consumers’ concerns by making it easy for them to opt out. Retailers didn’t replace every cash register with checkout lanes when the technology was new and unfamiliar, and facial recognition is no different. Companies shouldn’t force shoppers to engage with any experience that they want to avoid.

“With the adoption of anything new in the store, a retailer’s first line of defense is its employees,” said Warner. “Thoroughly educate associates and help them learn to be enthusiastic and supportive about whatever new contactless technology you’re using. Their enthusiasm, and the comfort that they bring to the customers in their interactions, is paramount. Also, a retailer should be communicating with the customer and reinforcing their values about protecting safety, security and privacy.”

Voice Interfaces Show Potential Both In-Store And Outside

The pandemic has created a surge in interest for voice-based interfaces: 70% of Americans say they would use them now, and 69% would continue doing so in a post-COVID-19 environment. This technology has been an important part of the reopening process for retailers like Starbucks, but even non-food companies can benefit from its potential, according to Warner:

  • Voice authentication can be used to secure pickup lockers, enabling truly contactless purchases;
  • Voice-enabled kiosks can serve as an easy way for shoppers to look up items or request assistance from associates; and
  • Payment processing can use a customer’s voice as a form of contactless security.

The key to using voice, as well as mobile and facial technologies, is applying them in a way that makes sense for a retailer’s brand promise and audience. Every vertical, from grocery to beauty to high-end luxury, can make use of almost any contactless technology. The trick is understanding how the available tools can best meet their needs.

“Voice and facial recognition are the two newer technologies in the mix here, but there are a lot of everyday technologies that can enable contactless — the most obvious one is the consumer’s mobile device,” said Warner. “Not all of this needs to be so cutting edge. Some of it could be very proven technology.”

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