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How smart retail can come in handy in this shopping (and Omicron) season

How smart retail can come in handy in this shopping (and Omicron) season
With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, and new disruptions caused by the Omicron strain, physical retailers must strike a balance between providing a good shopping experience and complying with related health and safety rules. Luckily, smart retail solutions can come in handy in this regard.
December is here, and it’s Christmas shopping season again. With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, and new disruptions caused by the Omicron strain, physical retailers must strike a balance between providing a good shopping experience and complying with related health and safety rules. Luckily, smart retail solutions can come in handy in this regard.
Needless to say, the pandemic has had a strong impact on retail, especially offline retailers who operate brick and mortar stores. A lot of these retail stores have to abide by mandatory masking, social distancing and maximum capacity rules, which are likely to remain in place during this shopping season now that Omicron, which the WHO has deemed “a (COVID-19) strain of concern,” has hit many parts in the world.
“The recent discovery of the Omicron variant is likely to result in more measures being reintroduced in the coming months. For example, the UK has reinstated a policy of mandatory face coverings when in retail establishments or using public transport, as well as calls for its vaccine booster program to be extended to younger age groups,” said Johann Kraus, Global Account Manager for Retail at Qognify.
In some countries, COVID-secure measures were never relaxed despite full reopening.  “For instance, in the UAE there is still strict mandatory mask wearing and social distancing in all retail spaces, and compliance is high – as are penalties – because people understand that such measures have helped the economy bounce back,” said Joon Jun, President of Global Business Division at IDIS. “South Korea has taken a very cautious approach throughout the pandemic. The country implemented its ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan in autumn, and eased social distancing but it could face setbacks with an increasing number of critically ill people requiring ICU.”
Further, there is a change in consumer habit, too. “The holiday shopping season this year in the UK might look very different than what retailers expect. Though the restrictions on social distancing and travel restrictions are being eased along with the rising vaccine rate, people’s shopping habits have changed since the pandemic. Shoppers are becoming more aware of what they want; there is less browsing, and more online shopping happening across the UK. With the new threat brought by the Omicron variant, the U.K. government has reintroduced the face coverings restrictions again, which is likely to compound these trends,” said Marianne Slamich, VP of Marketing at Pointr.
Yet a lot of these rules are difficult to enforce. “During the first and even second waves, retailers deployed frontline staff to enforce measures … yet staff were not always happy to be outside, and adverse consequences were increasingly reported – frontline shop workers felt that they were being put at unreasonable risk, and were being asked to do jobs that they had not been employed to do,” Jun said. “Some retailers employed security officers to watch over store fronts – at significant cost – but again this brought problems. Security officers were also at greater risk of verbal and physical abuse, and even serious violence. And the virus did not respect uniforms – in the UK, during the first wave it was found that security officers had highest COVID death rate.”

Smart retail here to help

This is where retailers can benefit from smart retail solutions, which can detect non-compliance to masking, social distancing and maximum capacity rules, with minimal human intervention. So what are these solutions? These are discussed as follows.


Analytics have been known to help retailers increase business intelligence. Now they can help with promoting health and safety in retail, during and post-pandemic. “There has been much global attention given to video analytics in retail environments in recent years, with early adoption of people counting, dwell time and heat mapping predominantly concentrated in the U.S. We are now beginning to see wider adoption across Europe and APAC. It is unclear as to whether this is a consequence of the pandemic, or if the market has matured. However, it is evident that how video analytics is being deployed in retail environments has evolved, with people counting not only being used for monitoring conversion rates and labor allocation, but now also being used to provide accurate occupancy data,” Kraus said.
He also added a word of caution. “People counting and occupancy monitoring can deliver tangible outcomes for retailers, as well as observing adherence to rules relating to the use of face coverings. However, if video analytics are being deployed solely for this purpose retailers need to carefully consider whether the level of investment required can be justified, as no one knows how the pandemic will evolve longer term," he said.

AI box and people counting sensors

While more and more analytics are deployed on the edge, these AI cameras are quite expensive for brick and mortar stores. Using box appliances with users’ existing cameras may be a more feasible alternative for disease prevention and control.
“IDIS’s AI COVID Solution supports safe retail COVID strategies and ongoing vigilance against viral infection risks. Building on IDIS’s philosophy of simple and affordable plug-and-play simplicity, the solution uses a box appliance that connects up to 32 existing network cameras, at building entrances and exits, with a traffic light dashboard to automate control of building occupancy,” Jun said, adding privacy-protected solutions are also available.
“In mainland Europe we have deployed people counting sensors on doors and entrances. It helps companies meet social distance and occupancy restrictions guidelines by counting people anonymously when they enter and leave the building. This helped retailers who needed a rapid solution yet who had concerns around GDPR; so rather than using cameras to implement people counting and occupancy monitoring some retailers felt more comfortable implementing an anonymized solution.”


Indoor positioning and location-based solutions can also help retailers maintain health and safety as well as optimize revenue, especially amid a change in consumer habit as mentioned earlier.
“People come to the shop with more apparent objectives in terms of what they are going to purchase. They come, they pay, and they go. However, when shoppers can’t find the items they are looking for, they are more likely to leave the shop rather than browsing until they find what they need. By implementing an indoor positioning system in the retail venue, retailers can enable digital wayfinding for customers to search for and navigate to their desired items (following a one-way system) without asking for assistance from the store workers,” Slamich said. “Location analytics, on the other hand, can help retailers execute more data-driven decisions, such as setting up more sanitation stations in more congested areas, sending out proximity mobile notifications for occupancy control, and advising shoppers when they’re about to enter a busier section of the store.”

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