Blog Series

2020: The year retailers mitigated disruption with technology

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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As 2020 brought retail change at an unprecedented scale and pace, the industry attempted to maintain operations with a variety of solutions.

In a typical December, I write a column looking back on technology that disrupted retail. But in a year that delivered the global shock of COVID-19, as well as more localized disturbances such as civil unrest incidents, technology became a tool to combat the effects of disruption. Following is a look at four innovative technology trends that retailers have been applying to the unique challenges of 2020.

Shoppable video/livestream shopping
In 2020, videoconferencing became a critical tool for consumers to remotely manage tasks such as work, school, and even socializing with family and friends. Retailers took a cue from this trend and introduced a wide range of video- and livestream-based shopping offerings. 

For example, Instagram rolled out direct shopping functionality on its IGTV long-form video app, J.C. Penney debuted a livestream holiday shopping show, and Walmart targeted home chefs with a new shoppable video hub. And Walmart’s pursuit of an e-commerce deal with the TikTok didn’t dissuade Shopify from launching its own digital retail partnership with the controversial short video platform.

On-demand delivery platforms move beyond food
On-demand grocery delivery began surging in popularity when much of the country shut down due to COVID-19 in mid-March. However, customer desire to minimize exposure to crowds and public spaces during the pandemic has prompted a growing number of non-supermarket retailers to quickly launch same-day delivery using platforms typically associated with groceries, such as Instacart. A few notable examples include Best Buy, Staples, and Sephora.

Buy now, pay later
Throughout 2020, leading retail chains adopted various omnichannel flex payment platforms. In November alone, these companies included Neiman Marcus, Saks Off 5th, GameStop, and Express. 

These solutions enable online (and in some cases, in-store) shoppers to divide payments into interest-free or low-interest installments. By offering omnichannel flex payment, retailers can reach out to customers who want a more streamlined, transparent digital payment process; or who want to pay by installment but cannot afford to make traditional interest payments. 

Contactless payment
Like online grocery delivery, contactless payment was an existing trend which perfectly fit customer needs as the COVID-19 pandemic became a fixture in shoppers’ lives. According to the 2020 State of Retail Payments study released by the NRF in August, 58% of retailers accept contactless cards and 56% take digital wallet payments on mobile phones. 

Since January 2020, no-touch payments have increased for 69% of retailers surveyed, of whom 94% expect the increase to continue over the next 18 months. Kroger, CVS, and Circle K are just three retailers to begin pilots or wider rollouts of contactless payment programs since summer 2020.

In addition to providing an additional layer of social distancing, contactless payment offers several benefits that should outlast the pandemic. These include the immediacy of payment, elimination of queues, and ability of shoppers to conduct payments with their own devices.

Editor’s Note: In my next Retail Insights column, which will run Friday, Dec. 18, I will look at key retail technology trends for the upcoming year.

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