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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - April 10th, 2020

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!


Hi everyone! With the US turning a corner in the battle against COVID-19, it’s time to start thinking about what life will look like after the pandemic. For our main focus this week, we look at the impact of the pandemic on retail, both during and after the crisis.

COVID-19 Accelerates the Need for Hands-Off Grocery Stores

To begin, let’s take a quick look at the article out of MediaPost titled “87% Prefer Stores With Touchless Checkout During COVID-19: Study,” in which a customer survey hints at ways COVID-19 is already changing grocery retail.

“More than 70% of shoppers are using touchless, robust self-checkout options or shopping at frictionless micro-markets,” writes MediaPost’s Chris Albrecht. “This compares to 29% who are shopping online. The majority (87%) of shoppers say they would prefer to shop in stores with touchless or robust self-checkout options or frictionless micro-markets to pay for groceries.”

Those last two percentages are worth repeating: 29% of grocery shoppers are shopping online during this pandemic, with 87% preferring to shop in stores with touchless or robust self-checkout options. In other words, the majority of people are still shopping for groceries in stores, even during a pandemic, but only prefer doing so when there’s contactless checkout available. You can be sure that’s something the big grocery retailers are picking up on.

“It’s been taking forever to move contactless or mobile payments to mass adoption,” writes MediaPost’s Chuck Martin, in his article, ‘Publix, Walmart Lead Shoppers To Contact-Free Payments;’ “but COVID-19 may be changing that. Walmart recently enabled shoppers to use the Walmart Pay app at self-checkout, eliminating the need to touch a screen. The mega-retailer also enabled remote payment using the app for pickup customers, so a consumer can stay in the car while items are loaded into the trunk by a Walmart associate. Now Publix is rolling out contactless pay to all its stores, including GreenWise Market.”

Pay from home, pickup at the store? Touch-screen with card to pay? These things are nothing new. But retailers sometimes drag their feet on any big implementation when there’s no obvious need, and adoption may be difficult. The COVID-19 outbreak revealed a painfully obvious need for contactless shopping. As the statistic above shows, shoppers are now choosing their stores as much for their safety as for selection. This has led to the rapid adoption by Walmart, Publix and others of contactless tech, more sanitation precautions, and even a heavier reliance on robot automation. Many, if not most, of the changes now being implemented may become permanent fixtures.

“... actually visiting a grocery store on the other side of this outbreak will undoubtedly be a different experience with the changes being implemented,” continues Albrecht, in his article ‘Cashierless Checkout? No Salad Bars? What Will Grocery Stores Look Like After COVID-19.’ “.... Beyond COVID-19, there will still be cold and flu seasons, and this pandemic has (hopefully) put a healthy fear of viruses into the general population.”

Food areas, like salad and hot bars, may disappear. Car wash-like terminals for grocery carts may be implemented. Vending machine services might become more readily available, with isles expanded to give shoppers that six feet of space. The grocery store we knew before this pandemic began is going extinct much faster than we expected.

Bernard Marr’s 9 Predictions on Future Retail Following COVID-19

Grocery stores aren’t the only retailers experiencing changes due to COVID-19. All retail will look quite different on the other side of this pandemic. AI expert Bernard Marr, in his Forbes article “9 Future Predictions For A Post-Coronavirus World,” helps us envision what that future might hold.

“As the ripple of COVID-19 careens around the globe, it’s forcing humankind to innovate and change the way we work and live,” writes Marr. “The upside of where we find ourselves right now is that individuals and corporations will be more resilient in a post-COVID-19 world.”

Marr's nine predictions range from the obvious (more contactless interfaces and interactions) to the not-so-obvious (rise in Esports). Many of them we’ve even discussed in previous Eye on AI articles (AI-enabled drug development). But for today’s purposes, I’d like to focus on what Marr says about the increase in online shopping.

“Although there were many businesses that felt they had already cracked the online shopping code, COVID-19 taxed the systems like never before as the majority of shopping moved online,” writes Marr. “Businesses who didn't have an online option faced financial ruin, and those who had some capabilities tried to ramp up offerings. After COVID-19, businesses that want to remain competitive will figure out ways to have online services even if they maintain a brick-and-mortar location, and there will be enhancements to the logistics and delivery systems to accommodate surges in demand whether that's from shopper preference or a future pandemic.”

COVID-19 has all but shut down most brick and mortar retail. While grocery outlets had to adapt in order to provide essential foods to shoppers, those stores that were not deemed ‘essential’ had to temporarily shut down. For the enterprising entrepreneur, this spells opportunity. Markets are shifting. Norms are changing. New opportunities are now available that weren’t before this pandemic began. Online shopping, while it’s nothing new, is now suddenly essential. Those shoppers that were resistant to before no longer have a choice; during a pandemic, it’s the new norm, and will likely stay that way once the pandemic ends. As for those businesses that are resistant to this change? They may no longer be able to survive without having some online capabilities for the simple reason that no one will have access to their products.

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