The online and in-store shopping experiences are converging, thanks to the introduction of new technologies into the retail arena. The task facing shop owners is to modernise the checkout experience to meet the evolving needs of shoppers, and to empower staff to create the in-store experience they want. Jim Banks talks to Mark Thomson, director of retail and hospitality, EMEA at Zebra Technologies to see how technology is changing the nature of shopping.


intelligent cabinet small retail photography Credit: Zebra Technologies

Despite the long-standing boom in online shopping and the hardships that shops faced during the pandemic, with their customers kept away by frequent lockdowns, retailers are currently seeing shoppers return to their stores. The pandemic’s impact on bricks-and-mortar retail stores are finally receding to become just a memory, but it will still mark a moment when the shopping experience changed for good.

According to statistics from the National Retail Federation (NRF) – the world’s largest retail trade association – although the pandemic saw many store closures, in 2021 two new stores opened for every one that closed. Furthermore, a large proportion of shoppers – around one-third – spent the same amount of time and money in-store in 2021 as they did prior to the pandemic.

There is no doubt that customers are returning to shops, but there is one big difference – they have much higher expectations when it comes to the in-store experience. According to recent studies, shoppers increasingly want to choose their own shopping path, increasingly prefer self-service, and expect to have a consistent experience whether shopping online or in-store. The focus, therefore, is firmly on the omnichannel experience, and if retailers failed to provide that consistency they could lose out.

“A good example is the omnichannel approach to modernising a store,” says Mark Thomson, director of retail and hospitality, EMEA at Zebra Technologies. “One step to success is that you need to accurately know what stock the store has so it can be ordered for collection by customers. If you don’t know, you might disappoint customers and drive-up costs by not having a clear view of your inventory.”

“That is one of the reasons why we are seeing continued growth in RFID technology, which retailers use to keep track of what is in stock,” he adds. “There was also a big rise – especially during the pandemic – in the mobilisation and empowerment of staff, as they want to avoid using a PC or a POS system to get to their inventory or access operational data. That is why retailers are buying more handheld devices – full touchscreen mobile devices and tablets – to increase agility and provide immediate access to data, so that the capability of the PC, or indeed the store, is now in the palm of their hand.”

Insights into inventory

Zebra Technologies is a leading digital solution provider, enabling businesses to intelligently connect data, assets and people. It manufactures and sells technologies and solutions to empower workers at the edge and helps to make organisations more efficient.  Zebra focuses on empowering teams with the mobility and insight to deliver at the cutting edge of excellence. More than just providing intelligent hardware, such as mobile computers, printers and scanners, Zebra offer solutions that give organizations complete visibility to make smart, nimble decisions about what action to take now, and how to plan for tomorrow.

“The importance of a specific technology depends on the sector of retail and the outcome they are trying to achieve,” Thomson explains. “The business processes involved often come first and that is what most of the discussions are about – productivity, reducing shrinkage, the safety of employees, reducing labour cost at a time when it is hard to find employees, and more. Then there are the more modern store challenges around integrating the online and offline experience. All of it starts with these high-level discussions before we start to consider the various technologies available to address their challenges.”

From this deep understanding of their business needs, a technology platform can be designed to address specific challenges that have a real impact on efficiency, profit, and the satisfaction of both customers and staff. For example, a lot of ecommerce fulfilment is done from distribution centres, but if a customer has only ordered one item, the warehouse has to break open a package containing multiple items just to fulfil that order. They also then have to deliver that order from the warehouse to the customer, which could well be a significant distance.

“The warehouse becomes order fulfilment and store fulfilment, a dual role that is hard for DCs [distribution centres] to master. Also consider that the majority of stock sits in stores,” says Thomson. “Retailers are realising this, and if they can fulfil orders from stores that are nearer the customer that is better, as it will cost less to deliver. If customers come to the store to collect, that is even better. They may buy something else while they are there.”

“On the inventory side, particularly in apparel retail, you can add an RFID reader to mobile devices to speed up inventory checks by reading thousands of items in seconds,” he adds. “Start with mobility and build on it with applications and ancillary technology like the RFID reader, or mobile printer to speed up markdown campaigns. Let’s face it, staff in retail stores are increasingly digital natives and know the power of technology, they just want to be provided with the right tools to do their job more effectively. “

Mobile technology empowers employees

Mobilising staff with the right technology creates opportunities to improve almost every aspect of the shopping experience.  . These devices allow workers to rapidly capture barcodes, high-resolution photos, signatures, videos and more.

“Mobilising all members of staff means employees are all permanently connected – sending tasks, emails, communicating across the organisation, giving people their schedules, and much more,” notes Thomson. “People can check their pay. It is truly the store in the palm of your hand and an invaluable window into the business.”

“Furthermore, they can answer any customer question immediately,” he adds. “The tech is empowering staff, giving them access to information, and the retailers that are becoming far more productive and improving customer satisfaction are those with mobile staff and devices for mobile applications.

Mobile POS (mPOS) is the key technology, and research by . Zebra’s mPOS solutions typically come in three parts, consisting of a handheld mobile computer or tablet such as the Zebra ET40 / ET45, a payment solution, and a mobile receipt printer.

These solutions would enable retailers to ring up items right at the point of purchase decision, offer faster checkouts and thereby prevent long lines and abandoned sales. Similar, mPOS systems eliminate the need to install additional fixed POS stations, reducing capital costs.

More importantly, the implementation cuts across all market segments, from supermarkets to high fashion outlets. “In high fashion, for example, you want personal service not a queue at a POS desk,” Thomson remarks. “Customers want to be greeted at the door by a person with a device who accompanies them around the store. That technology trickles down from luxury high-end retail to other segments. So nearly all staff can be personal shoppers, communicating with back-of-store colleagues.”

From groceries to evening gowns

The shopping experience is changing everywhere, from grocery aisles to the exclusive boutiques in the world’s fashion capitals, though innovation is most obviously on display in the supermarket, where there has been huge growth in the use of self-checkout and scan-and-go technology.

Indeed, Zebra’s 15th Annual Global Shopper Study found that 89% of shoppers are using self-checkouts, and 94% of all retailers are planning to deploy self-checkout lanes or kiosks by 2027. Furthermore, a survey by Researchscape found that 77% of US shoppers would be more willing to start shopping at a store if scan-and-go is available.

This important checkout modality enables shoppers to scan, bag and pay for items on their own, providing benefits for shoppers and stores. These include increased convenience and choice for customers, reduced labour costs by removing the need for cashiers, enabling staff to focus on crucial store tasks such as restocking and cleaning, thereby increasing productivity.

Zebra’s solutions are tailored around self-checkout and scan-and-go systems. A single Zebra ET40 tablet can be fixed to a presentation stand to access online orders and scan items, and can be connected to existing or new POS peripherals such as a large display, a handheld scanner, a payment terminal, a printer, a keyboard or a mouse, and more beyond.

In the supermarket, everything is focused on making checkout processes faster and more accurate. “It is about putting in the right tech to allow shoppers to shop the way they want to,” remarks Thomson. “Self-checkout is a big preference now among shoppers, and the technology has improved, so we see less need for interventions and improved shopper satisfaction, compared to their original introduction. There is also a constant increase in scan-and-go use, which has been around for over 30 years in the Netherlands, but is relatively new in the UK.”

“We are also seeing increased use of mobile wallets and contactless payments, so retailers are also considering how to improve the payments aspect of scan and go with shoppers just taking their phone or card, which they tap on a device to pay,” he adds. “It is all about reducing friction.”

Full automation, however, is still relatively new and not yet widely deployed. There are several trials including Amazon Fresh stores as well as Aldi, Tesco and Zabka in Poland among others.  The growth has been slower than expected and retailers are still evaluating the technology and how it fits with their shoppers. Some retailers are also experimenting with smart carts equipped with cameras to recognise products as they are placed inside. That, however, comes with operational challenges. Clearly the cost of the carts is higher than existing carts and batteries do not do well when left outside in cold European winters, which is where most existing carts are stored.

“Just because the tech can do something, it doesn’t mean it should,” says Thomson. “Full ‘frictionless’ stores create different kinds of friction, like needing to download an app, and the physical barrier that the app alone will open. Consumers are uncomfortable with it for now, but it will inevitably be developed to meet shopper expectations and find its place.”

“Whilst we often think of self-checkout as a technology for supermarkets, it is growing in other market segments, however, because of a desire among Gen Z and millennials to self-serve,” he adds. “It has appeared in fashion outlets, though it was railed against for many years because of the need to deal with security tags on items. In recent years, retailers have found ways for customers to de-tag clothes with a magnetic system once payment is recognised, or indeed shift to RFID which can be used for both inventory and security.”

have pioneered self-checkout in the non-grocery sector, thanks largely to RFID technology. More and more retailers are following suit, with many adding self-service kiosks for items that are being returned.

“It is usually to free up staff,” says Thomson. “particularly when staff are hard to find. Research has shown that Gen Z shoppers are more in favour of physical stores than millennials, but those stores have to work efficiently, and customers are more demanding in terms of efficiency and service levels, so staff freed up from checkout desks are increasingly being tasked with customer service.”   The 16th Annual Shopper Study found that 61% of Gen Z adults raise concerns over lack of in-store help.

The opportunity is there for retailers to drastically change the in-store experience, leveraging data, bringing visibility to inventory and empowering employees. Zebra has the full product suite to support that to help retailers enhance customer experience in an increasingly digital world. The key, however, is to start with the right discussion to know where and how technology can actually help.


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