Zero-touch Retail: The future of a post-pandemic world
With all the short-term challenges that retailers and brands face - health and safety, decreased labor force and consumer demand, one solution that has consistently proven to be effective is contactless or zero-touch marketing strategies.
Sneh Ratna Choudhary
Last Updated:  November 17, 2023
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the retail industry to its knees with states and entire countries going into lockdown.
The disruption of commerce has resulted in massive changes in consumer behavior and the retail industry is adapting fast.
With all the short-term challenges that retailers and brands face – health and safety, decreased labor force and consumer demand, one solution that has consistently proven to be effective is contactless or zero-touch marketing strategies.
So, what exactly does contactless or zero-touch marketing for retail look like?
Put simply, contactless marketing enables consumers to avoid touching surfaces, minimize in-store human interactions and shop virtually.
Think contactless payments, touch-free product demos, automated trial rooms and AR integration in the e-commerce website.
How to build a zero-touch retail marketing strategy for a post-COVID pre-vaccine world
#1. Go digital NOW
In 2019, only 4% of grocery sales in the US happened online. The pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital commerce.
Apptopia, a mobile application tracking company, reported that the average daily downloads for popular digital grocery apps – Instacart, Walmart Grocery and Shipt have seen a massive surge.
Comparing average daily downloads in Feb to March, Instacart, Walmart Grocery and Shipt saw a surge of 218%, 160% and 124% respectively.
As per data from Rakuten Intelligence, the online order volume from grocery merchants rose 210.1% from March 12 through March 15 compared with the same period in 2019.
The short-term consumer habit of making the purchase through apps is likely to become permanent.
That means retailers need to consider having a mobile-optimized website or partner with an existing app to sell their products.
Also likely to become permanent is curbside pickup or home delivery that offers a level of convenience that is both safe and time-effective for consumers.
However, digital commerce doesn’t leave much room for impulse buys or immediate consumption products.
So you don’t need to build a model that is entirely digital. You can choose a level of digitization that works for you and your consumers.
LEVEL 1: In-store shopping + limited contact at checkout LEVEL 2: In-store shopping with contactless interactions and payment LEVEL 3: BOPIS or curb-side pickup LEVEL 4: Contactless delivery LEVEL 5: Unmanned store/Robot delivery
#2. Optimize consumer wait time via SMS and video-based solutions
“With government guidelines restricting the number of consumers in a store and general consumer unease with being in a room with strangers, retailers have turned to SMS and video-based solutions to optimize the consumer wait time,” says Cristina Escalante, SilverLogic.
Retailers have also taken to video-based services to have a quick video chat with consumers to understand them better so that they can optimize the wait experience and serve them better once the consumer walks in.
#3. Appointment-based shopping during non-peak hours
While the concept seems odd at first, appointment-based shopping is all set to take off.
Vishak Kumar, CEO of Lifestyle Brands at Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail said, “Wedding customers love the idea of interacting with well laid-out merchandise in stores along with their friends and relatives – this is likely to transform to special appointment-based shopping during non-peak hours,”
Using SMS or email marketing, retailers can recommend a new product that potential customers might be interested in based on previous purchase history. Cristina (Silver Logic) mentioned that retailers can also add the option to book a time to come in.
#4. Communicate hygiene standards
Unlike the last two coronaviruses, COVID-19 is most likely going to be eradicated due to herd immunity through enough people getting infected or vaccinated. But it will have recurrences in its original or modified form.
This means future shoppers are going to care deeply about hygiene and sanitization.
For one, retailers could install sanitizer-dispensing stations inside.
But even more important is communicating the hygiene standards to the in-store consumers and ones deliberating about coming in to shop.
There are several ways to achieve this:
Add hygiene QR Codes
Outside the store and on display cases, these QR Codes will serve as reassurance that the store has been sanitized, Upon scanning the QR Code, retailers can redirect shoppers to their sanitization guides as a PDF or play a video to show the sanitization process.
You can also add QR Codes to POS receipts so that in-store and customers that prefer curbside pickup or home delivery are aware of the safety precautions.
Targeted SMS and email marketing
Skip the “unprecedented times” and “We are here for you.” As a consumer myself, emails written in a similar vein end up in the trash. Send SMSes and emails to customers that have booked an appointment or are in the waiting line.
Location-based in-app messages
If customers have your brand app, send targeted notifications powered by BLE beacons depending on where they are in the store.
For instance, if a consumer wants to know if the shoes in the display case have been sanitized, as soon as they come closer to the display, the beacon can deliver the notification to their smartphone.
Use a contactless form to collect feedback
The novel coronavirus can spread through contaminated surfaces. That means consumers will be hesitant to touch screens to offer feedback.
Even before the pandemic, Timpsons in the UK had implemented contactless feedback powered by QR Codes and seen feedback get doubled.
You can place a QR Code (no contact) or use an NFC tag (limited contact with a smartphone) at exit points or checkout counters to collect feedback seamlessly.
As crucial as feedback is, it is more important than ever for retailers to understand what they can do to serve consumers better.
Even more so, retailers can leverage innovative solutions suggested by their employees as well. Riley Moore, CEO of DirectSuggest, said “Our suggestion box application is being used throughout the world to assist organizations in managing, adapting, and mitigating issues surrounding Coronavirus. Thousands of employees are staying engaged and making innovative suggestions to do what’s necessary to prevent the virus from harming their daily operations.”
DirectSuggest usually costs $0.50 per-employee per-month, but they currently have a free 90-day promotional offer to assist in spreading the level of impact we can make on businesses throughout the world.
#5. Offer contactless delivery or BOPIS
The online food delivery industry has adapted swiftly to offer contactless or no-contact deliveries.
Consumers opt-in for a contactless delivery
Order is delivered by a partner outside on a clean surface
In-app notification and SMS is sent to the customer
The retail industry can easily replicate this and where logistics are a problem, turn to BOPIS (Buy Online Pick-Up In-Store) or curbside pickup.
For retailers that don’t have the logistics or infrastructure required, on-demand delivery providers like GoShare have been stepping in to make this possible.
Shaun Savage, CEO of GoShare, says, “Our app connects retailers and customers directly with a virtual network of delivery professionals.”
When physical stores began to shut down, GoShare reached out to their partners that resulted in several successful buy online, deliver to home partnerships.
Savage adds, “By leveraging on-demand delivery networks, retailers are turning their closed storefronts into distribution centers. They are allowing customers to buy online or over the phone, and delivering their orders directly to their doorsteps.”
Retailers that are able to offer home delivery are seeing an overwhelmingly positive response. Loyal customers are going out of their way to support local businesses and it is a trend likely to continue.
#6. Contactless in-store engagement with minimal human interaction
Carlos Castelán, Managing Director of The Navio Group – a retail consulting firm, says, “Once the quarantine across the United States is lifted, we anticipate consumers are going to want to go to stores and be outside of their homes so retailers that have made investments in their stores and supply chain over the last several years are going to be well-positioned when the coronavirus subsides and will see a higher benefit from store traffic.”
If that holds good, as a retailer, you should consider incorporating contactless engagement into your current strategies.
Store assistants usually facilitate In-store food tasting or new product demos. To limit or cut out human interaction, you can use a combination of QR Codes and NFC tags.
5 powerful ways to leverage QR Codes + NFC tags: 1. Attach a video tutorial of the new product launch 2. Ask for feedback via a digital form 3. Share coupon codes and discounts virtually 4. Answer common queries via a chatbot 5. Enable users to request assistance only if a need arises
Farfetch-owned luxury fashion boutique, Browns East uses its mobile app to let shoppers message staff while shopping limiting the need for actual human interaction.
But, it is the missing link necessary for e-retail and even physical stores to provide a safe yet engaging channel for consumers to learn more about products with virtually no human contact.
Jon Cheney, CEO and Co-founder of SeekXR, says “Retailers that already have AR capabilities in place are better prepared as consumers are able to use their smartphones to view products and bring to life how they’ll look in their home.”
This is especially pertinent for furniture brands as consumers build out their WFH workspaces. IKEA’s Place app offers a similar experience.
According to Cheney, “Brands that have been early adopters of AR technology have seen a significant lift in sales for several years. Conversion rates are increasing anywhere from 10% to as much as 200%. Product returns are dropping by 25%. Time to make buying decisions has been cut in half.”
Coupled with the fact that over 2 billion smartphones can unlock high quality, true-to-size WebAR content, retailers can leverage this technology without having to worry about app adoption.
The OG contactless solution, contactless payments powered by NFC and QR Codes, has grown in popularity since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
Nearly 1/3rd of consumers in US became first-time users of contactless payments and the majority plan to continue using contactless payment methods post-COVID-19.
The contactless payment is projected to increase 8x between 2020-2024 in the US.(Source)
While NFC seems to be the preferred technology for contactless payments, QR Codes are quickly gaining steam outside of South-Asian countries.
Paytm, a leading QR-based payment platform, has announced an in-store payment solution for retailers.
This allows consumers to forgo the digital checkout stations inside stores. Walmart has done something similar with its Walmart Pay app.
Nike’s flagship store was the first to create these instant checkout stations using app-based QR Codes to allow members to pay and leave.
Even earlier than that, Decathlon in India implemented a Scan and Go technology that allows customers to scan QR Codes to add items to their cart and make the payment on the app. Post payment, customers receive a QR Code on the app which gets scanned at the exit gate to verify their payment status.
Zero-touch retail: Robot retail, limited hands-on approach and a low-tech approach
Given that China’s JD.com and Alibaba owned Ele.me have already started despatching robots into quarantined areas, it might very well become a reality.
For the most part, stores are quickly adapting to become no-touch environments. Luxury retailer Space NK recommended their beauty advisors refrain from performing makeovers. Boots has also followed suit.
Sephora, the leader in digital beauty, intends to use its “please don’t approach me if I’m using the black-basket” initiative which is an extremely low-cost approach but highly effective.
But with non-essential retail stores generating little to no revenue, instead of spending on social media ads, retailers have taken to announcing discounts if consumers buy now with the product being shipped later and creating engaging content.
Catering to older consumers Since the older generation isn’t facing layoffs or an uncertain financial future, they have more free time to shop. Retailers need to start creating targeted content for these older shoppers and tailor their website to cater to their assortment preferences.
If you know of a contactless/zero-touch retail solution, please shoot me an email at [email protected]