Recent headlines suggest that technology will upend the retail industry this year. As a result, shoppers may purchase items in entirely new ways while employees realize how tech aids them in achieving higher-than-ever levels of productivity.

Here are a few examples of the most pioneering tech emerging so far in 2019.

1. The Connected Store Concept

Many retailers have at least a few connected devices accessible to consumers or workers. Besides the absolute basics like computers, there are price scanners, self-checkout sensors and security cameras on the premises. However, thanks to a partnership with Microsoft, Kroger seeks to redefine what people think of as a “connected store.”

The project involves two ultra-high-tech pilot stores that leverage retail-as-a-service (RaaS) technologies and set an exceptionally high bar for future innovations. Some of the technologies in these stores include a video analytics system powered by Microsoft Azure that helps store associates quickly identify out-of-stock products, plus a light-based system that gives visual cues to workers fulfilling curbside pickup orders.

These stores will also feature the Enhanced Display for Grocery Environment (EDGE) Shelf. It uses digital displays instead of paper tags, and it goes beyond price information to give nutrition information, promotion details and more. The shelf also provides a revenue-boosting opportunity by offering a store the option of selling ad space on the fixture to help brands connect with customers as they shop.

A 2017 survey found that approximately 78 percent of respondents wanted businesses to do a better job of harnessing technology to improve consumer experiences. This bold experiment from Kroger and Microsoft should resoundingly determine if people still feel that way.

2. Improved Checkout Solutions

Various advantages compel people to shop online instead of in stores, and one of them is that online shopping allows people to avoid waiting in line to pay for items. Research from Synquera found that 73 percent of those polled mentioned the checkout process as their top pain point associated with in-store shopping.

Retailers are listening and increasingly looking for ways to speed up the necessity of paying for items and make it more pleasant. They might focus on the point-of-sale (POS) terminals that employees use and engineer the equipment so that it features integrated information about sales and automatically applies the respective discounts related to customers’ items.

Some stores also accept payments from digital wallet apps, understanding that people hate carrying around credit and debit cards that they might lose. In 2017, 12 percent of small businesses in the U.S. let people use mobile payments. Such a modest statistic shows that there’s plenty of room for growth in 2019 and beyond.

There are also retail locations that promote not needing to stand in line at all. One of them is New York City’s Fairway Market, with its line-free mobile checkout. Similar to digital wallet applications, this option requires downloading an app, then using it to scan desired items around the store. Also, Caper is a startup pitching a combined shopping cart, payment interface and barcode scanner.

In stores with self-checkout stations, retail experts continually investigate ways to streamline the user experience. People should expect 2019 to be a time when paying for items in a traditional manner is rarely the only option. Zara, a fast fashion retailer popular with Europeans, tested better self-checkouts last year that automatically recognized items when people held them close to the kiosk.

3. The Rise of Retail Robots and Other Autonomous Technologies

This year will not be the first time retailers use robots, but the potential ways to benefit from them will diversify. Pensa Systems developed an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered and autonomous system that sends drones around stores to locate empty shelves.

Anheuser-Busch InBev took part in a pilot program in Montreal that required less than 90 minutes of setup time for technology that achieved a 98-percent success rate for finding instances of sold-out stock.

Speaking about the drones, Andrew Green, Global Director of Innovation at Anheuser-Busch InBev, noted: “Retail out-of-stocks represent a significant challenge for CPG companies and their retail partners, as they can lead to millions of dollars in lost sales. We are very enthusiastic about Pensa’s novel approach to retail inventory visibility, and look forward to testing it in further commercial environments.”

Elsewhere, Ahold Delhaize USA recently deployed a robot named Marty in nearly 500 stores representing Giant, Martin’s and Stop & Shop brands. Marty spots spills and other hazards and reports them. This approach allows workers to spend more time interacting with customers.

Selfridges, a high-end department store chain in the United Kingdom, has a robot in one of its locations that serves coffee to customers. Moreover, a company came up with a bread-baking robot that saves food retailers the trouble of having bread shipped in from suppliers. People interact with a touchscreen to choose the type of freshly baked loaves they want. The smell of warm bread can also become a natural enticement for people to purchase.

Exciting Opportunities for Future Advancements

Many of the examples here focus on trials in grocery stores, but most of the technologies mentioned can apply to almost any merchandise customers might buy.

These improvements remove numerous manual processes for customers and employees, whether it’s searching for shelves to restock, scanning barcodes or picking up canned goods to read ingredient labels.

The year 2019 is still young, but it’s clear that the months ahead will forever shake up the retail sector. Staying ahead of the competition requires stores to aggressively pursue innovative technologies and remain open to positive changes.

By Kayla Matthews.

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