Grocery stores played a vital role during the pandemic. They kept food on our tables and our pantries stocked when everywhere else was shut. Front-line employees and store managers worked through the long days of lockdown, shouldering immense pressure to sustain the communities they serve.
Now, with most restrictions lifted and consumers hungry for real-world shopping experiences, supermarket footfall is rebounding strongly. For store owners who’ve weathered two years of COVID, that’s great news, but to succeed in the post-pandemic era, retailers will need to keep on working hard to support both customers and employees.
This will require grocery retailers to embrace innovative technologies that streamline the supermarket experience and make shopping safer, more efficient, and more pleasant and engaging for everyone. The following are five ways that supermarkets can use tech to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic world.
1. Keeping Shelves Stocked
We all remember the rows of empty shelves. They were a potent visual portrayal of the fear people felt during the first frenzied days of the pandemic. With COVID looming, people started panic buying, purchasing whatever they could lay their hands on.
Stocks of essential goods soon recovered, but if the onset of new virus variants has taught us anything, it’s that shelves can empty in the blink of an eye when consumers get spooked by a new outbreak. To manage those pressures, supermarkets need complete visibility into stock levels on key items.
One solution is to use digital tech to proactively head off shortages. Using artificial-intelligence (AI) tools, teams can quickly scan photos of shelves to automatically track inventory, and by feeding data back to headquarters, digital tools can provide whole-chain visibility into buying trends, enabling stock to be redirected or orders to be expedited to minimize the potential for empty shelves.
2. Streamlining the Shopping Experience
During the peak of the pandemic, grocery stores adapted to consumer safety concerns by implementing click-to-buy shopping and curbside pickup. Now they need to bring the same spirit of innovation and efficiency to a world that’s learning to live with COVID.
Safety will remain top of mind for many people, but shoppers will be looking for retailers to make them feel safe without disrupting or delaying their in-person shopping experience. Eliminating crowding and streamlining every aspect of the experience will be vital, and these are areas where new technologies can deliver results to intelligently channel customers from entrance to exit.
How often, for instance, do you get lost looking for an item, bumping into people or causing traffic jams as you weave through the aisles? Wayfinding systems — also known as “grocery store GPS” — could solve this age-old problem, digitally guiding shoppers to the products they need via the quickest route while also helping to minimize crowding and promote social distancing.
3. Making Checkouts Smarter
Checkouts are key bottlenecks in most stores. To beat that, AI-enabled cameras can recognize when an item is placed into a cart, allowing customers to automatically pay for the cart’s contents simply by leaving the store.
Smart shopping carts can fulfill a similar role, using sensors that record when an item is added, to or removed from, a shopper’s basket. Part of a wider shift toward retail digitization, these solutions will allow customers to forgo the traditional checkout process by settling their bill instantaneously when passing another set of sensors located at the exit.
For shoppers who’ve become used to paying digitally during the e-commerce boom, such methods could make in-person shopping more pleasant and friction-free, combining the seamlessness of digital commerce with the ability to look at and touch products in person.
4. Cleaning, Cleaning, Cleaning
When it comes to creating a safe, hygienic shopping experience, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned cleaning. Well, maybe not so old-fashioned — in modern supermarkets, automated cleaning bots resembling “Star Wars” droids gained traction during the pandemic, and they’re only growing in popularity as we look to the future.
Able to autonomously clean floors and sanitize shelves, these bots can glide from aisle to aisle, mopping and wiping while also killing viruses and bacteria with ultraviolet light. Such technologies might sound futuristic, but they’re rapidly going mainstream: Two-thirds of retailers think it’s important to have a robotics strategy, and almost half plan to greenlight in-store robotics projects in the coming months.
Humans will also have a vital role to play, of course, and digital workforce management tools can help front-line teams clean up effectively. Mobile checklists accessed via smartphones and tablets can enable workers and managers to track chores, share best practices, and ensure that teams stay on top of new health and safety requirements or COVID safety protocols.
5. Keeping Teams Connected
Labor shortages have been a key challenge during the pandemic, and retailers that use tech to turbocharge their training and retention will be positioned to succeed in coming months.
Digital tools can integrate training into employees’ regular workflow, helping them adjust to changing conditions without forcing them to step away from the shop floor. That leads to a better experience for employees and helps to keep teams a step ahead when it comes to compliance, hygiene, product recalls, food freshness and other important supermarket issues.
Smarter training and engagement tools are also crucial for employees, who feel more valued and get meaningful opportunities to increase their skill sets and create value for their organization. That leads to team members viewing retail as a real career rather than simply an hourly wage, boosting morale and helping to insulate their employer from the Great Resignation.
Creativity, Not Complacency
As we enter the post-pandemic era, grocery stores can’t afford to become complacent; on the contrary, they’ll have to work harder than ever to keep customers safe and satisfied, and to engage and retain their best employees.
To achieve that, grocers can’t afford to simply go back to business as usual. Instead, retail leaders need to make a commitment to keep on innovating, and to use all of the tools at their disposal to make supermarkets not just as good as they once were, but better than they’ve ever been.
That will require a willingness to learn from the past as we look to the future. It’s only by carrying forward the lessons from the COVID crisis, and leaning into new technologies and new ways of improving the shopping experience, that retailers will be able to keep on growing and thriving in the months and years to come.