Typically, it takes retailers months to implement new technology, put up digital storefronts or enhance and expand on services, but Covid-19 compressed that timeline to mere weeks as retailers tried to make up for lost sales during lockdown. The businesses that were not able to execute digital transformation as quickly as the others have suffered losses.
Professor Gary Mortimer from QUT Business School says that at the height of the pandemic, it didn’t matter which retailers had implemented technology well and which ones hadn’t; it was about which ones were able to catch up.
“It is often quite challenging to influence customers to adopt new retail smart technology and sometimes a mindset that such technology might reduce jobs,” Mortimer said.
But during the Covid-19 outbreak, retailers placed such concerns in the back seat as they tried to cope with online demand and in-store shoppers’ safety.
Experimenting with new technology
Mortimer cited Woolworths as an example of a retailer that worked fast in implementing new technology into its stores.
“Woolworths was the first Australian supermarket to implement scan-and-go technology, which allows shoppers to scan their groceries with their smartphone and simply ‘tap and go’ and leave,” he explained. “It means shoppers don’t have to line up and they can avoid waiting at the checkouts entirely.”
Woolworths’ scan-and-go scale, created by Australian technology company Tiliter, uses computer vision to recognise items without barcodes. It allows customers to get out the door faster, resulting in smaller queues and a safer and more hygienic way to shop.
Tiliter co-founder and CEO Marcel Herz told Inside Retail: “In the past eight months, supermarkets have seen the need to ensure that they are investing in new technology to speed up traditional checkout processes. Newer ones, like contactless shopping, now make more sense than ever.
“This increased demand in retail tech, and especially the contactless shopping experience, has seen an increased adoption across the globe,” he said.
Woolworths implemented initiatives beyond scan-and-go. These included:
- A CovidSafe QR code for customers to scan upon entry to support health authorities with rapid contact tracing efforts
- Q-Tracker, a smartphone tool that uses real-time data to show the length of the queue at any store so customers can avoid peak times
- A direct-to-boot online shopping pick-up option
Delivery was a major focus for Woolworths last year, which included turning some regular supermarkets into online delivery hubs.
“We launched our first micro-fulfilment site [in Melbourne, which] helps us deliver unparalleled speed and accuracy in the online picking process while keeping us close to our customers for faster and more flexible deliveries,” explained a spokesperson for the supermarket giant.
A traditional retail store converted into a local fulfilment centre is also known as a dark store.
The Woolworths-owned New Zealand supermarket Countdown also adopted new technology, including scan-and-go. In April, it opened the country’s first 24-hour purpose-built online store, a physical 8800-square-metre facility in Auckland used to fulfil up to 7500 online orders a week. The goal is to ease the pressure on staff at Countdown’s other Auckland supermarkets. The e-store features a butchery, bakery, packaged groceries, fresh fruit and vegetables, 200 personal shoppers, and no customers.
“The question we’ve put to ourselves every day is, how can we leverage technology and innovation to support Kiwis? And that continues to be our driver,” Sally Copland, acting managing director of Countdown, told Inside Retail.
“The year 2020 has certainly been one for the record books, with Countdown increasing our online grocery delivery capacity by 60 per cent in March and April and registering more than 200,000 new online customers.”
Coles has also been innovating to help make the online experience as seamless as possible. Both home delivery and click-and-collect were available for most of last year and at the peak of the pandemic, delivered to the elderly and other vulnerable customers through its Coles Online Priority Service.
“It’s great to be able to extend Coles online deliveries to all customers,” said Karen Donaldson, general manager of Coles online and strategic projects. “Our team has worked hard to improve stock availability to help us fulfil customer orders.”
“By reorganising our delivery windows, we have been able to increase the number of slots available for customers, and we have also recruited hundreds of extra customer service agents to help us meet the increased demand for Coles Online deliveries.”
Another example of a retailer that took swift action is sports retailer Decathlon, which, in partnership with DHL, put goods-to-person robots in its Sydney warehouse to dispatch orders faster. These robots can move at close to one metre per second, allowing the company to dispatch up to 144 orders per hour.
“We have seen significant online growth this year,” Olivier Robinet, the CEO of Decathlon Australia, told Inside Retail. “Our store’s foot traffic decreased during lockdown, but we’re back to normal now. Like most retailers, we faced a major challenge with store closures. Our response: develop contactless click-and-collect in-store, additional click-and-collect points with partners organised for pick and pack in-stores to deliver the best online shopping experience to customers.”
The new order management software allows the company to maximise its available inventory while remaining agile during the dispatch and delivery process.
“We’re able to activate and deactivate our stock at multiple locations on our website and fulfil from multiple locations, which is extremely advantageous during Covid uncertainty,” Robinet said.
Booktopia is another example of a technologically innovative company. It recently completed its ASX listing and is trialling autonomous robots at its Lidcombe, Sydney, distribution centre to increase capacity and productivity.
The robots, developed by Shenzhen-based Hai Robotics, could quadruple efficiency and increase storage capacity by 80 per cent, the company said. The shift will allow the distribution centre to hold 1.8 million products, compared to its current cap of 800,000.