Singapore’s retail sector has undergone significant changes on multiple fronts, brought about by the prolonged pandemic.
Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers rapidly pivoted towards online or omnichannel business models to accommodate evolving consumer preferences against the backdrop of manpower shortages and competition from e-commerce.
As the pandemic restrictions ease, increasingly digital-first consumer preferences — coupled with an increased emphasis on health and safety ingrained into social consciousness — have made it challenging for physical stores to remain as relevant as before. This was reaffirmed by a recent study conducted by Axis Communications, which found that 10% less Singapore consumers intend to shop at physical stores today, compared to the pre-pandemic era.
Melding the best of physical and digital retail
According to the International Data Corp, the accelerated flight to digital during the pandemic does not mean the end of physical experiences. Instead, the modern consumer prioritises impactful experiences. The onus will be on retailers to evolve their approach to business, maximising consumer satisfaction and retaining their competitive advantage.
The same study also observed that consumers are displaying favourable sentiments towards technology-augmented, physical shopping experiences. This offers retailers a unique opportunity to rethink physical retail models, addressing key concerns of today’s consumers and optimising outcomes through a technology-augmented approach.
The future of retail is unmanned
Unmanned stores — or physical stores with few to no staff — represent a win-win solution in the new economic reality for both retailers and consumers alike. These stores serve as a highly viable option to bridge the gap between what consumers expect and what retail experiences can offer.
Having a keen understanding of the local landscape and consumers will be key to helping unmanned stores thrive. Singapore respondents to Axis’ survey had expressed a heightened interest in unmanned stores, with half indicating that they would like to visit an unmanned store in the post-Covid economy.
However, the research also indicated that local consumers viewed safety and security as an important feature in unmanned stores, with 65% prioritising video surveillance as an essential feature to deter crime.
To enhance security standards, operators can implement access control measures such as cardless or mobile QR code access as part of store entry procedures. When this is deployed alongside intelligent video surveillance and video analytics technologies, stores can address security concerns without compromising consumers’ shopping experiences, and even deliver impactful experiences to maximise customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
Working in tandem, these technologies can automatically restrict store access when there is risk of potential overcrowding, or if suspicious behaviour or offences such as shoplifting have been detected.
Besides the value add to security, these technologies can also enhance the overall customer experience by issuing audio messages personalised to individual customers, and enable 24-hour or longer operating hours as few to no staff is required.
With video technologies and analytics, it also fulfils sustainability goals by automatically powering down lights and air-conditioning during lull periods.
In the context of Singapore, an unmanned retail revolution will be well-placed to ride upon the nation’s overall digital transformation efforts, in particular, its Smart Nation initiative. These not only create the digital infrastructure that provides the foundation for such stores to thrive, but also give rise to a digitally-savvy population likely to be more receptive towards technology.
In addition, the automation in unmanned stores enables more efficient utilisation of manpower, allowing the human workforce to undertake higher-skilled tasks and effectively manage operations with smaller teams. This aligns with broader national objectives around workforce upskilling and mitigating potential manpower constraints.
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Automation in action
This shift towards autonomous retail is not limited to Singapore. On the global front, businesses of all sizes have been made to quickly adapt to ensure business continuity.
A successful example is Crazy Candy in Sweden, which launched the country’s first unmanned confectionery stores. Each autonomous Crazy Candy store is now equipped with a robust system made up of door controllers and speakers, cloud-based video management systems, and a QR code authentication system to ensure customer safety and store security.
Through this approach, Crazy Candy has been able to extend its opening hours, elevate the brand and customer experience, boost profits and build brand equity.
The road ahead
Moving forward, the need for Singapore retailers to innovate and pivot their operating models in step with changing customer preferences will be crucial for them to remain relevant and thrive in the modern era, with unmanned retail presenting a viable path forward.
Although upfront investments could be a cause for concern, operators should focus on long-term gains when calculating return on investment, such as the potential cost savings to be gained from longer operating hours and more efficient deployment of manpower.
Technologies, such as advanced video surveillance, will be essential for retailers to maximise data-driven insights from the digital economy. They will enable the delivery of personalised services while upholding security standards that undergird post-pandemic retail experiences.
Singapore retailers that effectively ride the waves of opportunity to reinvigorate their shopping experience and leverage a technology-augmented approach will be well-positioned to navigate the future of retail.
Carl Malmqvis is the regional director for South Asia Pacific at Axis Communications