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Three thoughts on current trends in retail tech

Amazon One
Amazon One

Sometimes my mind wanders to what “touchless” retailing really means, among other industry topics.

When you spend 40-plus hours a week immersed in the latest happenings in retail technology, you inevitably form a few opinions. In the interest of delivering an informative, unbiased account of industry news, I (usually) leave them out. But this is a column. So here is my take on emerging developments in touchless retailing, third-party online marketplaces, and same-day fulfillment. 

Touchless retailing needs a human touch
Even as we enter a long, slow wind-down from the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers continue launching new “touchless” brick-and-mortar formats. These stores use computer vision for true “grab and go” shopping, enable shoppers to check out with their own devices or biometrics, or even operate as interactive vending machines

While the idea of a dedicated human cashier may seem quaint within a few years, I don’t see the need for human associates going away anytime soon. As anyone who has ever dealt with a fully automated call center can attest, sometimes you just need help from a live person. Also, associates with smart devices can aid less tech-savvy shoppers in removing friction from “frictionless” shopping experiences.

Third-party online marketplaces come of age
Led by Amazon Marketplace, third-party online marketplaces are claiming a unique niche in the broader e-commerce vertical. What eBay (now a top third-party marketplace in its own right) originally did for individual sellers cleaning out their attics, third-party marketplaces do for small brands and retailers attempting to perform e-commerce at scale.

For a small business, a third-party online marketplace can provide a ready-made storefront, customer base, and fulfillment network. For a large online retailer, it enables the rapid and cost-effective expansion of product assortment. The fact I have recently interviewed the founders of two businesses dedicated to purchasing and promoting small brands that sell on third-party marketplaces – Boosted Commerce and Perch - underscores the importance of this business model.

Consumers want the world – and they want it now
When legendary Doors vocalist Jim Morrison sang, “We want the world and we want it now” in 1967, he wasn’t referring to consumer expectations for on-demand order fulfillment. But the sentiment certainly applies to customers who have come to appreciate the convenience and immediacy of same-day delivery, BOPIS, and curbside pickup services which have become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mercifully, COVID-19 appears to be abating in the U.S. But customer desire to have any product available for omnichannel order and fulfillment the same day, via multiple options, will only continue to grow. The industry is realizing this fact, as demonstrated by trends such as the dizzying array of non-grocery/CPG retailers partnering with major on-demand delivery platforms, as well as the increased use of idle stores and even shopping malls to support local fulfillment, and the rapid growth of micro-fulfillment, which uses small-scale warehouse facilities located in urban areas to quickly fulfill orders. 

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