Modern Life

Using tech to woo shoppers back inside stores

Retail is being reimagined with new in-person experiences enhanced by online convenience.

By JP Mangalindan — May 25, 2021

For over two decades, Pat Convery, retired former president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce, perused the aisles of her local Kroger store in Hartland, Michigan, almost every week to shop for groceries. Then, the pandemic hit, and like most shoppers, she had to quickly change her routine. Convery started relying on Kroger’s curbside pickup option. In those early days, Convery says Kroger took days to fulfill orders. But as the months wore on, the delivery order windows shortened dramatically. Now, if Convery orders in the morning, she can expect to get her items in the late afternoon. 

“Now it’s pretty routine, and I think it’s because Kroger has gotten the hang of it, and it’s all more efficient on their end,” she says. 

The rapid rollout and adoption of curbside pickup by businesses like Kroger is just one example of the myriad ways brick-and-mortar retailers, which saw foot traffic plunge nearly 83% in the spring of 2020, reimagined the shopping experience during the pandemic. The retail industry has been on a steady rebound since June 2020, ushering shoppers back into a sanitized, socially distanced shopping experience, where safety is paramount and options like online shopping, curbside pickup, and contactless payment are more common. Retailers have embraced this unprecedented situation to transform the shopping experience, changing seemingly entrenched consumer habits almost overnight and redefining shopping as we know it through technology. 

“The pandemic accelerated the table stakes of digital transformation, the things that companies already should have been doing,” says Omar Akhtar, research director for the research firm Altimeter. “But it’s also normalized some of the innovation that may have been seen as too far-fetched before the pandemic.” 

The reimagined store

Many consumers, like Convery, say they’ll stick with shopping behaviors they adopted during the pandemic. An IPSOS survey found that 78% of shoppers increased their use of buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) services, and 69% expect to continue shopping that way, arguably because they’ve become used to the sheer convenience. 

But as COVID cases go down and vaccination rates go up, retailers are banking on shoppers returning to their stores in person. And to draw them back in, retailers are enhancing their shopping experience. As consumers re-enter the retail store, passing by designated curbside pickup spots on the way, they’ll discover items they may not have expected to buy, and encounter more spacious aisles, sanitizer stations, and signs alerting them to safety precautions — all part of the new normal.

A clothing retail employee using the HP Engage Go to check products.

Courtesy of HP

Retailers are investing in technologies that offer something more to customers, whether it's for convenience or to enhance their in-store experience.

While shopping, they can use apps downloaded to their smartphones or in-store devices to bring the internet into the store, researching products and even making purchases online, all while engaging more deeply with the brand. Luxury fashion retailer Escada, for instance, is using the HP Engage Go, a tablet-style device that helps in-store employees deliver a new level of customer service. 

“Associates can use the tablet as a conventional fixed point-of-sale terminal, or can walk with the customer to where merchandise is located and look through what’s available on their e-commerce side. Products can then be ordered online and shipped to the store, or to the customer’s location, if it’s not available on-site,” explains Dmitry Sokolov, global industry lead of retail for HP.


RELATED: How we shop now: Redefining the retail experience online


When it’s time to pay, shoppers will have more self-service, contactless, and mobile options. US consumers have been slower to embrace mobile payments than consumers in the rest of the world, but safety concerns during the pandemic spurred adoption. According to eMarketer, 92.3 million people in the US used in-store mobile payments in 2020 — a 29% increase compared with the year before. Contactless possibilities include paying from their smartphones with digital wallets like Apple Pay or Google Pay, simply tapping their credit cards, and waving their palms over a biometric scanner. Or, they could just walk out while their credit cards are automatically charged for their purchases (identified by in-store sensors), thanks to so-called “grab-and-go” technology developed by Standard Cognition, Trigo, and Amazon (for its Amazon Go stores and other retailers). 

Experience and convenience

Moving forward, Sokolov envisions a future where retailers offer a bifurcated retail experience: one focused on a customized, luxury experience in person, and the other highlighting a quick and automated turnaround. 

“Customers either demand great experiences — and they’re willing to pay more for that — or they expect convenience and want to be in and out really fast,”  he explains. “Experience and convenience is where I think retail will continue to develop.”

A line of customers waiting outside of a store socially distanced while wearing masks.

Getty Images

Consumers aren't likely to relinquish their pandemic-era shopping habits, so retailers looking to woo customers back into stores are thinking differently.

For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods is experimenting with ways to let customers engage with products in ways online shopping simply can’t replicate with its House of Sport concept store, which opened in Victor, New York, in April. The vast retail space, which encourages shoppers to linger, features a 17,000-square-foot outdoor turf field and running track, a 32-foot rock-climbing wall, a batting cage, golf-hitting bays, and wellness services like yoga, as well as a large selection of apparel, footwear, and gear to buy.

More retailers will also blend technology into the physical retail shopping experience in new ways to make shopping in-store easy, seamless, and rewarding. 

One type of technology Akhtar predicts will become more commonplace in the years to come? Beacons, small wireless devices that transmit signals using Bluetooth technology to nearby mobile devices, displaying a message related to the aisle you’re walking in on your smartphone, for example, or sending you an exclusive discount code. While Beacon technology isn’t new — Macy’sUrban OutfittersSephoraTarget and other retailers have used it for years — Akhtar expects it to become more common.    

“Customers either demand great experiences—and they’re willing to pay more for that—or they expect convenience and want to be in and out really fast.”

—Dmitry Sokolov, global industry lead, retail for HP

“As people start returning to the stores, their physical proximity to something becomes even more important,” he says. “Why not engage them at the moment they’re interested? Offer them a discount if they’re in front of a pile of sweaters or show them other styles that are not in-store.” 

Stores as fulfillment centers and showrooms

To reduce shipping expenses, retailers like Best Buy, Kohl’s, and Macy’s now also use their store stock rooms to fulfill online orders — a strategy that cuts down significantly on transportation time and costs. Target, for instance, reported that over 95% of its fourth-quarter 2020 sales, including digital orders for pickup and delivery, were fulfilled by its stores, while Bed Bath and Beyond said that stores fulfilled 36% of online orders.

In other cases, retailers are realizing that they can save costs and improve the customer experience by using brick-and-mortar real estate to complement the online shopping experience. Nordstrom, for instance, has introduced a new type of store, Nordstrom Local, that carries no inventory at all. It instead offers online order pickup and return, style advice, tailoring and alterations, and beauty services. 

With new innovations like these, retailers are turning pandemic-era realities into opportunities to make shopping easier and more rewarding for consumers like Chris Fohlin, a financial coach in Houston, who has grown accustomed to the convenience of shopping online for almost everything from household items to hot wings.

“I can’t imagine a future in which I have to go back to the way things were,” he says.