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COVID-19 prompts retail innovation

Mounir Jamil

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Retail Innovations

The pandemic has had an extremely influential impact on the way we shop. With a period characterized by lockdown restrictions, mandatory quarantine, curfews, and the closure of many retail stores across the country, the retail industry was left hanging in the balance.

However, in these moments of adversity, retailers began shifting their attention to technology to alleviate some of the problems presented by COVID-19. 

Inside Telecom breaks down some of the most influential and powerful retail innovations that are being deployed today to take the online shopping experience to the next level. 

During the most stringent lockdown measures, the e-commerce scene witnessed an unprecedented boom with shoppers flocking to online stores and platforms to buy goods they could not purchase physically.

Even now, with most of these restrictions alleviated and the majority of brick-and-mortar retail stores having reopened, fears about contamination and infection still loom in peoples’ minds.

Shop owners are eager to gain their customers trust by implementing retail innovations to manage the current risks; customers are also keen on shopping again in an environment that is safe, confident, and hygienic. 

Scan, Pay & Go

Scan, Pay & Go is the name commonly given to technology that allows shoppers to use their smartphones to scan the goods they want to buy as they move around a store, usually via a dedicated app, before paying for them and leaving the store. No queueing or checkout required.

Interests have peaked regarding the Scan, Pay & Go technology a bit before the pandemic spread globally. Even a few supermarket chains have conducted trials for this technology. Now, however, interests have peaked, and the value of this solution has been demonstrated by the pandemic. 

The ability to reduce queues and improve flows around the physical store will directly correlate with fewer chances of shoppers coming in close contact and potentially spreading the virus. 

Smart digital signage 

Markings and stickers placed on the floors of retail stores are a common way to enforce social distancing guidelines and manage the flow of shoppers throughout the store. However, they are a fairly one-dimensional solution. 

Some retailers are now beginning to embrace a more high-tech solution to manage in-store footfall: digital signage.

Samsung Electronics UK has recently partnered up with Quividi, an audience and campaign intelligence platform specializing in digital signage. The goal of the partnership is to create the “next-generation” solution that will keep shoppers safe in-store while they are shopping. 

Samsung will be creating the digital signboard, powered by Quividi’s analytics solutions that work on optimizing in-store safety and security and ultimately help retailers better manage social distancing. 

By making the most out of data capturing devices, such as CCTVs, etc., this technology has the ability of tallying how many customers are in a given store and can also detect if they are wearing a mask or not

In addition to that (and here’s where it gets all 1984) this tech has the ability to utilize thermal scanning to help identify shoppers with a high temperature who might be unaware they have the virus.

The data is analyzed, and the system decides which messages are displayed on the signs via real time triggers and conditional scheduling. 

With privacy and security issues being a pressing concern for several users, retailers need to implement the digital signages in a strategic way to prevent customers from feeling uncomfortable. Retailers have the opportunity to gain valuable insights about foot traffic and customer flow through the data they collect and can in turn use this data to improve store layout and product placing. The signs also offer an additional revenue stream, by displaying adverts and promotional content along with informational messages.

Click-and-collect method 

The pandemic has matured the click-and-collect system, a typically overlooked means of obtaining online orders into a prominent method for reducing in-person contact and decreasing time spent getting online orders. 

The novel click-and-collect experience is currently being tested at several stores, with extensive data and customer feedback being observed to better understand demand. 

While the online boom brought by the pandemic might seem like good news for retailers and a valid opportunity for digital transformation, it has also impacted several retailers’ profit margins due to the increased cost of delivery and logistics. 

By offering click-and-collect, retailers can cut these costs without missing any benefits that online channels have to offer. 

QR codes make a comeback 

QR codes are currently going through a renaissance at the moment in certain sectors like healthcare and hospitality and are being redefined as an effective means of accessing information, tracking movements, and activating virtual experiences. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see QR codes as part of the latest retail innovations being deployed in stores and shops. 

QR codes are already well established in digitally advanced countries like China and serve as effective contactless payment method. This usage of QR codes is making its way to the west, where PayPal in the U.S has partnered with Venmo and are rolling out a QR code payment technology across all 8,200 CVS pharmacies all over the country. 

The QR codes will give CVS Pharmacy customers the option of paying for their purchases with stored debit or credit cards, bank accounts, their PayPal balance, PayPal Credit, Venmo balance or Venmo Rewards – as long as they have an account with PayPal or Venmo.

QR codes have also proved their value outside of facilitating payments by acting as a practical means to share business contact info. WhatsApp recently revealed a feature that allows WhatsApp business to create and share QR codes, that when scanned, will initiate a direct WhatsApp chat with the business in question. 

The current pandemic has set the stage for QR codes to take off as a flexible means of conducting transactions. With other advantages such as incorporating discount vouchers, loyalty programs and even virtual storefronts. 

While the current pandemic has brought forward numerous challenges for the retail sector, it has also inspired new retail innovations that can be used for enhanced, safer shopping experiences. 

Junior social media strategist with a degree in business. Passionate about technology, film, music and video games.

MedTech

What’s holding remote learning back?

Mounir Jamil

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remote learning

The pandemic triggered a shift to remote work that has been relatively smooth due to most modern offices already using an array of communication and collaboration tools. However, the case is not so similar for remote learning.

Right now, the best technology at our disposal can’t solve some of the inherent problems of remote learning and virtual schools. We examine some of the hurdles in remote learning.

The digital divide is ever-present 

An early concern since the start of the pandemic is that low-income students have less access to the internet and to devices, which all directly impact the remote learning strategy. And unfortunately, there has been little evidence to indicate improvement. 

A recent survey found that 75% of Black and Latino families that have children in under-resourced schools in Los Angeles do not use computers regularly. It also indicated that 47% of the total parents surveyed had never even visited the Edtech platforms used as part of the remote learning experience.

So, in many cases, even if the technology needed for remote learning is available, children from low-income families have difficulties logging in and utilizing the platform consistently. 

The needs of an IT department and students vary

Some of the primary concerns of a university’s CIO or a school’s IT administrator are, how secure is the software, administrator authorization, ease of integration with existing software, and privacy concerns. While students are simply looking for a smooth interface equipped with features that ultimately facilitate the learning experience and make it easier.

As such, several schools or universities simply stick with the software they are currently using. This has created a major issue in remote learning for startups and capital investments, and the pandemic has only made them even more risk-aversive.

Existing tech can’t be just slipped into education  

Eric Reicin, President and CEO of BBB National Programs highlights that, “The variety of the tools we use in business… were designed for business and not students”.

With that in mind, it’s important to distinguish that products like Slack, Microsoft Teams or Zoom that have been critical for keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic might be ill-suited for younger students who struggle with usability and have limited attention spans. 

This also means that these tools may not necessarily comply with the existing requirements and guidelines that schools have for the education platforms they are currently using. 

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MedTech

Tech employment – losses and recovery

Adnan Kayyali

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Tech employment

In previous articles, we have tackled the impact of the pandemic on various professions and industries. However, there has been a notable surge in innovation and employment in the tech industry.

This may come as a surprise to many. After all, the pandemic shook the foundations of global market overall, and everything with it. While the tech employment market did take a hit, the impact was substantially less than other industries.

Areas of tech such as cybersecurity, data analysis and science, and communication have been more essential than ever since the pandemic began, and reports confirm that tech employment was on the rise well before the pandemic began.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak until July, the number of jobs in the tech sector had risen by 200,000 while people in other sectors were being laid off. Later however, came the decline. According to Indeed, in June, companies began to slowly cut away at the number of IT jobs made available. Tech employment posts were down as much as 36% by the end of July.

According to an analysis by CompTIA of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent study, IT jobs across all sectors have declined by around 134,000.

Technical IT jobs and help desk work seem to be doing slightly better than others. Companies are still trying to navigate the turbulent changes of the pandemic, and the transitions to remote work, and so most companies, even under economic strain, are reluctant to let go of any IT employees.

“Tech’s failure to recover is probably due to the high cost of hiring and firing”, according to Indeed in a statement to ZDnet “While a restaurant may take on workers based on demand experienced over the past two weeks, sectors like tech have much longer planning horizons.”

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MedTech

Contactless tech deployed in restaurant chains amid pandemic

Mounir Jamil

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As we continue adapting to the pandemic, we notice that our needs as consumers are rapidly changing. Not so long ago, standing in-line at a packed fast food chain, waiting to get served, was considered to be the norm in dining experiences; we can evidently see how this scenario can’t be applied in the time of COVID-19. 

Enter contactless tech – a solution that has proven itself to be a fundamental necessity amid the pandemic. Technology teams from several restaurant chains have been trying to implement contactless tech to streamline visits, enhance the customer journey, and ultimately make their employees life easier. 

Various types of contactless tech ranging from QR codes to robots have aided restaurant chains. We break down the top contactless tech ideas that were brought forward by technology chief attendees of Restaurants Rise powered by MUFSO in a panel titled Touchless Tech: How chains are reimagining technology with the use of contactless ordering and the resurgence of QR codes. The panel was sponsored by Ziosk. 

The comeback of QR codes

QR codes which have already been around for a decade or so, started making their way back into the limelight before the pandemic hit, proving their value as a practical type of contactless tech. QR codes have become an integral part for Tocaya Organica, a 16-unit “experiential fast-casual” chain serving Mexican food in California and Arizona that’s part of The Madera Group.

The technology allows guests to point their smartphones at the codes placed on tables, pull up the restaurant menu and order. Each table has a custom QR code, allowing servers to know where to bring the orders once they’re ready. 

Justin Keenen, Tocaya Organica’s Director of Information Technology commented that the team “had to make sure that that experience carried over as much as possible,” as the restaurant chain moved away from traditional counter service to placing an order at the table using QR codes.

Guests can point their phones at the codes on each table, pull up the restaurant’s menu and order. Each table has its own QR code, so servers know where to bring the orders when they’re ready, and Keenen hired the tech company Thanx to build access to the chain’s loyalty program on top of the Olo ordering software, allowing guests to accrue and redeem points from their phone.       

Keenen added that about 80% of the users surveyed provided “overwhelmingly positive feedback,” with the contactless tech being very easy to use.

Geo-tagged pickup

Popular El Pollo Loco, the fast-casual grilled chicken chain with 480 locations has now enabled geo-tagged curbside pickup at 95% of all its locations according to Andrew Rebhun, the chain’s Vice President and Digital Officer.

With curbside pickup being planned for 2021, once the pandemic hit, those plans were expedited. Rebhun and the team worked to launch the service via the El Pollo Loco app this summer, starting with 20 restaurants and quickly scaling up. 

It’s also a contactless tech that is fairly easy to use. Customers opt into GPS tracking, which will then alert the restaurant as they are driving up, allowing the team members to bring their order directly out to the car. 

Guests that don’t want to opt in for GPS, can simply click the “I’m here” button and a crew member will be out with a face mask to deliver the order. 

Vice President of Technology at White Castle (fast food chain with 360 locations) Susan Carroll-Boser told Restaurants Rise attendees that they are currently testing two new technologies at one location in Indiana: Flippy the Robot and a new drive-thru menu board with artificial intelligence

Flippy the robot

The headline grabber is Miso Robotics’ Flippy the robot.

White Castle is deploying the “robot on a rail” mechanism to work the fry station. It operates above the fryer, so it doesn’t bother any team members.

Flippy operates with a smart freezer provided by Computer Vison. This smart freezer controls portions and schedules when items are to be fried, with human team member supervision

AI Powered Drive-Thru Menu Board

The same White Castle branch in Indiana is also testing an AI powered drive-thru menu board. 

By using voice recognition technology from SoundHound, the menu board has the ability to listen and respond to customers. Guests can select a “known-user experience” that allows the AI to recommend items from the menu tailored to them. 

The contactless tech is also capable of performing “basket analysis” and can assess what’s been ordered and make really good suggestions as to what customers might want to add. 

Using voice recognition technology from SoundHound, the menu board can listen to and respond to customers. According to Carroll-Boser, a person can opt into a “known-user experience” that allows the AI to recommend menu items tailored for the customer.

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