How new technologies are set to change the way we shop online.
Last week, we discussed the barriers to online grocery shopping and a few possible solutions. Let’s take this opportunity to delve deeper into the innovations that will shape the grocery shop of the future.
In order to increase the number of customers who regularly shop for groceries online, the experience needs to be simple, intuitive and attractive. It needs to answer customer’s needs for particular items, for fast, free delivery and for ease of use. Innovation is the key to moving forward and creating a better product that will attract users.
Much innovation is focused on automation as a way to speed up and regularize many aspects of eCommerce. To help with issues of last mile delivery, autonomous vehicles, drones and robots are touted as the solutions to delivery of the future. A fleet of robots has already begun delivering food orders from Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts to students at George Mason University in Virginia, using GPS to find your location and a thermostat to keep your food at the right temperature. A student must meet the robot at the door (they can’t enter buildings) and unlock it using a smartphone app. Sounds like the future? It may be coming sooner than you think. Over SIX companies have delivery robots ready to launch which means that by the end of 2019 — having your groceries delivered by a robot dog could be quite normal. Drone delivery, on the other hand, may take longer to take off mainly due to restrictions on airspace and a short battery life. However, companies are working on this problem as drones have the potential to be much faster than ground vehicles and therefore more cost effective. Amazon Prime and UPS are already testing delivery drones.
Automation can also save time and money in warehouses. A good automated warehouse system should ensure that the flow of goods is efficient, reliable and fast. Picking automation reduces human error; automated scanning of barcodes reduces the need for human labor and ensures that the system is constantly up to date. Automated inventory management has proven to be cost effective, and companies are working on creating automated vehicles such as forklifts and pallet carts so that drivers no longer need to engage in this monotonous task. These systems are already in operation in Ocado’s warehouse in Andover which is capable of processing 3.5 million items each week. Ocado is developing robots that can handle oddly shaped items such as bottles, and gently pick up delicate items, like fruit. Warehouse automation is continuously being updated to the benefit of eCommerce. Just look at what Boston Dynamics’ robot can do and get a glimpse of the future.
A second key area for innovation is AI — Artificial intelligence. To many people, AI brings to mind humanoid robots but if you think of AI as simply the way that a computer collects, analyzes and retrieves data, it becomes less threatening. A strong artificial intelligence is able to learn (acquire information and rules), reason (apply rules to information), and self-correct (learn from mistakes). AI is meant to mimic the human brain, not to replace it. In the field of eCommerce, AI can help retailers to control chains of supply and demand; forecast demands; manage marketing, advertising and promotional campaigns; streamline store operations; manage pricing; and collect and analyze customer intelligence. AI can also be used by customers to order their shopping — Alexa, order more coffee from Amazon!
Other innovations include a solution for customers who do not have a credit card so that they can shop online, and solutions that target improving convenience such as shorter shopping times and moving easily between online stores.
There is also a move to create digital shopping experiences within brick-and-mortar stores, particularly in the grocery field where more customers shop in store than online. One such advance is the ability for a customer to do an “online order” using a terminal within the physical store for all the items they don’t need to manually select, such as cleaning supplies. While the robots prepare the “online” order, the customer can go and hand-pick those items they want to choose themselves, such as fresh produce. When they move on to the register, the products selected using the terminal are already waiting for them so they can pay and go home in half the time of a traditional shop. A more “futuristic” innovation comes from the worlds of AR where technologies will allow an enhanced shopping experience limited, literally, only by our imagination.
This is part of the move towards an omnichannel experience that will integrate brick-and-mortar stores with their online equivalents. The omnichannel experience allows retailers to gather data about their customers across different situations so that they can provide personal and individualized shopping experiences that will attract long time customers. Understanding shopper habits such as their preferred day and time to shop, their eating preferences, if they have children or pets, their preferred brands and other data, means that retailers can improve the shopping experience for their customers. Online shopper profiles and store loyalty cards are other ways to collect this data.
Improving convenience for the shopper and allowing customer data collection for the retailer are two of the key goals of eCommerce in the coming years.
Edit Dec. 2020. Here’s a short video by my friends at Fatbit Technologies providing a quick overview of the future of retail.