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Digital retail is more than just online shopping. The explosion in online retail throughout the pandemic period has perhaps distracted from the fact that retail activity remains 80% bricks-and-mortar.

Major retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Walmart, Woolworths and Coles continue to invest heavily in digital enhancements to the customer experience in-store. But digital solutions are also accessible to smaller retailers, with clever in-store capability emerging to help smooth the shopping experience.

M&S has launched the rollout of new digital click-and-collect and returns operation, designed to make the customer journey more efficient and simple. The new technology includes self-service digital kiosks for both click and collect and product returns, replacing traditional customer collection desks which typically have long queues during busy periods. The digital kiosks are already being trialled at 22 stores, and will be operational in 78 stores by the end of the year.

The approach taken by M&S is a direct response to nominated customer “pain points”, where customers had previously reported areas such as having to visit third party courier websites to manage returns or deliveries as negatively impacting their shopping experience. The new mobile returns capability allows customers to choose their preferred process for returning product purchased online, including drop off at their closest store. M&S says this new digital capability will reduce the time to prepare customer returns by up to 60%.

Today’s shoppers consider a retail brand to be a single entity, irrespective of whether shopping online or in store. They expect to be able to shift seamlessly between digital and physical touchpoints with the same convenience in-store as online. In addition to difficulties processing returns, other pain points typically raised by customers include long checkout queues, challenges in locating products, lack of customer service and trouble find more product information.

In the United States, retail behemoth Walmart is dialling up its approach to solving the problem of long queues in its trial of the first large-format all-self-checkout store in Texas. Whilst many retailers around the world have incorporated self-checkout into their operations, this is the first large format “supercenter” of 120,000 products where traditional checkouts do not exist at all. Rather, a “hosted checkout” bay of 32 checkout stands has replaced all cashier lanes, with the Dallas News is reporting that local shoppers are seeing faster service. One customer noted “I’ve yet to come in and see a line to check out”.

Smaller retailers are also innovating with new technology solutions. Swedish fashion brand ‘& Other Stories’ has implemented simple interactive vending machines its stores. These “vending kiosks” are solving other customer pain points around service and detailed product information. Customers can interact with large touchscreen hubs to explore the available products in depth, as well as physically accessing a range of products from its beauty and fragrance collection through a small vending capability.

By taking the time to understand their customers' pain points, retailers can utilise cost-effective digital capability in their stores to significantly improve the customer shopping experience, increasing customer stickiness and brand loyalty.

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