Retail goes contact-free as COVID-19 restrictions lift

Commercial

As stores and shopping malls reopen, owners and retailers — already facing financial challenges — have a monumental task: making people feel safe in the age of coronavirus.

Retailers everywhere are using technology to address the concerns of a public with heightened germ awareness. From contactless payment systems and touchless bathroom fixtures to self-cleaning elevator buttons, nothing is off the table. While social distancing and disinfection procedures are needed in reopening stages, many companies are looking beyond that, investing in technology that will prepare them for longer-term shifts in consumer behavior.

“The innovation curve in the retail sector has accelerated by five years because of coronavirus,” says Edward Wagoner, Executive Director, Digital Chief Innovation Officer, JLL, who is based in Chicago. “So have customer expectations of a touch-free experience.”

Retailers are investing in technology with these new expectations in mind. At the upscale Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok, customers enter through disinfectant misters and thermal scanners are used to check temperature readings. In South Korea, movie theater chains are using ticket-scanning AI robots and popcorn-vending smart kiosks powered by voice recognition to minimize human contact.

“There’s a whole new wave of technology being developed as we speak,” Wagoner says. “I think we’re going to look back and say: ‘Wow, remember when we used to touch the faucet to turn our water on?’”

Touchless payments

Some of the biggest shifts have taken place at checkout, where adoption of no-touch payments — made by hovering chip-enabled credit cards over payment terminals, or by paying ahead of time on a website or app — is spiking.

According to American Express, 58 percent of U.S. customers who have used contactless payments during the pandemic say they are more likely to continue using it in the future. Even Germany, a longtime cash holdout, is embracing the technology. The German Credit Agency reported that more than half of card charges were made without contact as of March 21, 2020, compared to only 35 percent before the pandemic.

“Contactless payment not only removes angst around having to touch a pin pad or sign a receipt, it helps push people through the queue quicker,” says Aaron Spiess, Executive Vice President and Founder of Big Red Rooster, a JLL company. “It facilitates a more seamless experience.”

Target, which has seen its online sales grow during the pandemic, offers curbside contactless pickup for orders placed on its app. The company developed technology that allows customers to order directly through Instagram. Hudson, which has shops within airports, is one of many companies to expand ‘tap to pay’ capabilities throughout its stores.

“Handing someone your credit card is going away and touchless will become the norm,” says Brad Lenz, Senior Vice President, Design, Facilities and Store Development, Hudson. “We want to keep everybody safe and give shoppers a high level of confidence when they walk in.”

Beneath the surface

For aspects of the physical shopping experience that cannot be touchless, cleaning technology is key. Many shopping centers are investing in UV light technology to disinfect.

The Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale invested in call button covers that feature self-cleaning mineral nanocrystals that continuously break down surface containments.

“The implementation of technology requires a capital investment, but will reduce costs associated with manual cleaning processes, and provide consumers with a level of comfort,” says Karen Raquet, Executive Vice President, Director of National Property Services, JLL.

Virtually open

To satisfy the shoppers who are not ready to return to stores, nascent technologies such as augmented reality (AR) could become mainstream, Raquet says.

Ikea acquired an AR startup during the pandemic, boosting its ability to help consumers visualize and purchase new furnishings from the comfort of their homes. Eyeglass maker Warby Parker began offering virtual vision consultations and a virtual try-on tool on its site. Sephora, a retailer built around high-touch experiences, is leaning on its app’s facial recognition technology to help shoppers try on lipstick and eyeliner — no contact required. Whether people will ever feel comfortable enough for in-store makeup applications is an open question.

“Once there is a vaccine, I think consumer comfort levels will increase significantly,” Raquet says.

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