From shelves to curbs: Future of commerce, retail and delivery

The advent of the pandemic has challenged retailers and marketplaces to shift from physical to virtual stores.

With COVID-19, consumers have tapped into commercial websites like Amazon, Alibaba and eBay. The convenience of stocking virtual shopping carts full of goods at the click of a cursor has the power to render in-person shopping almost obsolete. But as companies and corporations start to blend hybrid virtual and store-based experiences for customers, outcomes continue to be optimized and driven by finding higher-efficiency ways by which people and goods can be brought together, whether it be on the store floor, curbside, or via delivery.

With tele-conferencing and chat-driven customer experiences, almost every department of a retail store can be moved online from human resources to customer service. Furthermore, diversifying the channels through which products and services are offered can attract more customers, markets, and profits. As companies create moves towards modern cloud-enabled digital interfaces, those stores that are able to adapt their platforms more quickly and effectively to the contemporary commercial environment will be given an edge over their competitors. Employing software designers, graphic artists, and tech-savvy employees can become huge advantages for otherwise small businesses.

Retailers are also confronted with decisions to be made on how to store, regulate, and manage data networks. Search engine optimization, cloud computing, and data insights can reveal more information about consumer choices, allowing businesses to tailor towards personalized customer experiences. That being said, there are also limitations to these online modalities as they relate to security and privacy issues. Future store operations ought to be cautious with collecting consumer data and with whom they chose to share this information with because intellectual property and digital assets, unlike physical assets, can be leaked, replicated, and hacked. As the scale of operations goes up, proper knowledge around rights, risk management, and mitigation best practices will also need to be upgraded and updated.

With edge computing tools, one can also precisely determine what is in stock, which becomes especially useful as product movement increases due to online ordering, curbside pickup, and delivery processes. By checking the volume and types of products on the shelf via computer vision, mobile devices, or robotics, inventory systems can be streamlined. These same technologies can also be applied in the context of improving in-store operational execution through the coordination of human and material resources. Furthermore, the automation of in-store put away, restocking, picking, packing, curbside, and delivery processes can also increase the productivity of employees. That being said, there are also concerns that traffic monitoring and task management applications can replace employees and the need to hire – leaving employees jobless in an already tough economy.

Cutting-edge technologies have also allowed larger retailers to recreate the consumer experience from the comfort of the prospective buyer’s homes. With augmented reality and virtual reality, potential purchasers can browse through store catalogues and sales floors online, with the opportunity to do so autonomously or with guidance from a virtual sales assistant. Personalized experiences like these can build lasting and loyal customer relationships that can provide a company of the future with growth opportunities, profit, and efficiency like never before.

John Christy Johnson is research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada. Peter Anto Johnson is a research program officer at the AIC and recipient of the University of Alberta Sustainability Council’s Sustainability Leaders Award. Austin A. Mardon is an assistant adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and an Order of Canada member, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.