When I first visited UNIQ – the Shoprite Group’s standalone apparel brand – at Canal Walk shopping centre in Cape Town, I’ll admit that I approached the till a bit sheepishly. I’d heard that UNIQ is the first retail outlet in South Africa to offer self-service checkout and I was both excited and tentative to use it. The process was super-simple – everything in the store is fitted with an RFID tag, so when you place your loot in the checkout “box”, it scans the items and instantly displays the cost of your basket on a customer-facing touchscreen. Swipe your card and you’re good to go.
While the growth of e-commerce in South Africa has been described as explosive in recent years, what innovations like this represent is a local reality – bringing innovation to brick-and-mortar retail experiences remains important. But finding a balance between physical and online innovation isn’t easy. One big challenge for retailers is to hybridise their operations, to bring together the digital and physical legacy, to merge the algorithmic personalisation of e-commerce with the immediacy and customer service of brick-and-mortar stores, says Peter Ludi, business development director at redPanda Solutions.
David Cohn, CIO of Shoprite Checkers, says the retail store of the future is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s different for different segments of the market, he says. “Our UNIQ stores are very different to our grocery stores. At UNIQ, we went the selfservice route because we had the room to innovate and we wanted to offer something new and different to our customers.”
The move was also about giving staff the opportunity to get out from behind the till, says Cohn. “We weren’t looking to reduce the number of people we have working in our stores. Rather, we wanted to give them different roles and use these people to enhance the customer experience.”
Coming back to the idea that innovation looks different across different retail stores and different market segments, he mentions that during the pandemic, the company rolled out a fully equipped Usave store on the back of a truck, equipped with a satellite dish and a generator, because lockdown restrictions meant that their customers couldn’t get to their stores. While this kind of thing might not seem as high-tech as self-service checkout, it still serves as a great example of how one can come up with an innovative solution to a customer problem, he says.
And, sometimes, the new approaches you try don’t always go according to plan, says Neil Gouveia, sales director for Africa at Zebra Technologies. “We manufactured a robot three or four years ago, called Emma, which was tasked with hovering around the store to check shelf availability using machine vision technology.” Emma consistently scanned shelves and would send an alert when an item needed to be replenished.
“But what we found was that people weren’t comfortable with a robot hovering around the store,” he says. So while the trial itself was successful – in that Emma did what she was supposed to do – this use case for robotic technology is, currently, better suited to non-customer facing functions. While Emma may have been relegated to the back office, the experts agree that technologies and solutions that give retailers greater visibility are really changing the game.
Traditionally, retailers are in the business of buying goods from a manufacturer or a wholesaler and then selling these goods to consumers. They might even produce their own goods, but the end goal remains the same – selling to customers. As such, the core of any retailer’s success lies with having stock on the shelves, says Franita Bosman, founder and MD at BD-Nav. With this in mind, stock health and making sure that the stock you have is productive is important. By keeping a close eye on sales data, retailers can address critical issues and identify key selling opportunities.
By improving the experience of workers using automation and other technology integrations, modern retailers can, in turn, also improve the experience they offer to their customers.Peter Ludi, redPanda Solutions
For example, if a retailer sells a million rands’ worth of stock on a particular day, but its sales could have been R1.5 million, based on what was ordered, that’s a lost opportunity of R500 000, she explains. This can happen for a number of reasons; understanding what these reasons might be (perhaps stock is sitting dormant in a back room, for example) is essential so that retailers can guarantee that they cash in on the additional R500 000 opportunity tomorrow.
“But data in itself is not gold,” she says. “When you think about all the different products that retailers sell, it would be impossible to effectively manage everything without actionable data insights. The key here is that the data has to be actionable.” These insights can empower retailers to do better forecasting, using the most up-to-date information to determine how much of a particular product should make its way from the warehouse to the store the following day, she says.
At Shoprite stores, says Cohn, the company is using computer vision technology to monitor queues. “Using camera vision, we can see how many people are waiting in our queues and if the queues are getting longer than we’d like, we can open additional tills.” Again, he says that any chosen technology or strategy has to fit a particular use case or application in a certain type of store. For example, it doesn’t use computer vision to monitor stock on the shelves. “Our Sixty60 team is constantly picking stock off different shelves. If they are looking for a product and it isn’t available on our shelves, they can immediately make a note of this, which sends out a ‘no stock’ alert, and then we can quickly replenish that stock. It’s a far more efficient use of our resources.”
Marcel Bruyns, sales manager for Africa at Axis Communications, says similar surveillance technology can be used in retail storerooms to address issues with damaged goods. “By tracking how products are managed and handled in the storeroom, retailers can identify areas that need improvement and ensure damaged goods are properly accounted for, which can potentially reduce losses.”
For redPanda Solutions’ Ludi, technology choices should not only be made with the end-user in mind. “When deciding what solutions to invest in, retailers must also consider their retail staff. By improving the experience of workers using automation and other technology integrations, modern retailers can, in turn, also improve the experience they offer to their customers.”
But data in itself is not gold.Franita Bosman, BD-Nav
Another area where technology can make an impact is around shrinkage – employee theft, shoplifting, administrative errors, damages or vendor fraud. By investing in solutions that can tackle theft and streamline stock management processes, retailers can reduce shrinkage, says Bruyns. “Utilising technology such as barcode scanning for incoming and outgoing deliveries can help retailers keep better track of inventory. Additionally, comparing information on sales slips with video footage can help identify instances of “sweethearting” (unauthorised discounts or free items given by employees).
While there’s a lot of shrinkage that happens at the till, says Cohn, you have to steal a lot of cans of baked beans to have a significant impact. As such, Shoprite focuses its efforts on reducing shrinkage across the supply chain. “Obviously, we have tech at point of sale to monitor and identify potential anomalies, but we’ve been quite strategic about incorporating tech into our trucks to eliminate inventory loss.” When trucks leave the distribution centre, they are electronically locked and only when they reach a geo-fenced area at the destination store can they be opened. There are also cameras to monitor if anything untoward is happening and to track the safety of the stock; it uses this technology to check that the stock doesn’t bounce around too much while the truck is in motion, he says.
When retailers are looking to make big tech investments, they need to think of it as a journey, says Gouveia. For retailers that are yet to get going on this journey, he advises that they start small. Something as simple as a barcode can unlock a whole world of data that a retailer can leverage and use to adopt different solutions. The key, he says, is to make a start.
* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za