The pandemic has created new sensitivities around interpersonal contact—and nowhere is that truer than in the retail and hospitality sector. Happily, new touchless retail technologies are helping merchants make their businesses safer, more comfortable, and more efficient.
To discover how the industry is deploying these advances, technology power couple Sarah-Jayne and Dean Gratton interviewed experts from BlueStar, a leading distributor of mobility, point-of-sale, and security solutions. They discussed the ways the checkout experience is evolving to meet new expectations, why technologies like RFID are critical today for store operations, and how leading retailers use these technologies.
(To listen to the full interview, check out our podcast Retail Tech Chat Episode 2.)
Know Your Stock
Dean Gratton: What does BlueStar do, and what is your role?
Gordon Atkins: I am Retail & Hospitality Technology Hardware Specialist at BlueStar. We are a solutions distributor. We work with different manufacturers, bringing their items together, and putting them into solutions available for resellers, ISVs, or anybody to take to market, to help solutions in retail, hospitality, warehousing, and other areas.
Sarah-Jayne Gratton: Retailers are looking for innovation to make sure, with potentially reduced staff levels, that they’ve got means for tracking things. And I also think that retail is moving forward so much into a data world. Would you agree with that?
Gordon: Oh, definitely. We’re in a real-time world now. And when people say, “Have you got it?” We’re wanting to know right now if they have it or not. For me, the expectations of technology and the expectations of retailing now is for that to be available and to find that information, at hand, instantly. The tools are there, so why not have it working perfectly for the customer?
Sarah-Jayne: Absolutely. And things have changed so much over the past six months. How do you think the pandemic has changed the retail landscape, and what do you think merchants need to do differently?
Gordon: I think this year, the huge growth in the online presence of everybody is showing the way that people that would normally go to the High Street to have a look, have been shopping online and have potentially new trends where they have enjoyed shopping online.
The stock calibration between the two needs to be there. If the stock’s not there, is there a chance for them to sort of showroom those items—have some on a demo rail where people can go, “I just needed to try an 8,” regardless of color, regardless of availability?
The experience needs to be there in retail. If you go in your car, driving into a town to the High Street, if you’re on a quick mission, no problem at all. But if you’re looking for something that’s different, you want the help. You want the advice. You want an experience when you go shopping.
The Future of the High Street
Dean: Do you think the High Street still has a future? We’ve seen a lot of High Street stores close as a consequence of online stores such as Amazon.
Gordon: The High Street is always going to be there. The shopping experience is always going to be there, because some things you just can’t do online. And sometimes you just want to go, and try and collect it, and get it now quickly, and the High Street is a great way of doing that. For me, it’s always going to be there. It just needs to revive itself, have a bit more of an experience feel.
Sarah-Jayne: How do you think that stores can enhance the event aspect of shopping? If you go out as a family, you want to have this experience. Wouldn’t you agree, Gordon?
Gordon: Yes. There are times at the moment that we rush in, we rush out. But after this, to get the High Street and everybody back moving again, when everybody’s happy and we can have the way it was together, it makes perfect sense.
There’s thousands of variations and things you can do, but it all actually does help in its own little way. And for me, customer service and experience are the key things that High Street needs to see. Let the customer buy online, in store, via their normal card payment or something like that, if there’s not the stock available. People are willing and looking for that type of environment. It’s about having options at the moment.
Evolution of Payment Methods
Dean: And with that in mind, do you think the evolution of transactions and how they occur, do you think that’s going to change?
Gordon: Yes, to be honest. The use of phones as payment devices now is growing dramatically.
A bit like online banking, isn’t it? Some people stayed away from online banking for a while, then they all of a sudden had to download an app, and before they knew it, they were like, “Well, I’m not going back in the bank anymore. This is much easier.”
Dean: I think it’s about education and confidence in the technology that you’re using on a daily basis. And I think the wider it’s accepted by the masses, the more confident people become with it.
Gordon: Customer service is key, regardless of the person. You’ve got to cater to different needs at the moment. Some people just want a quick self-service, two items and out. Some people want that.
Dean: I suppose it’s trying to achieve that balance. Do you see always a need for staff service desks or kiosks at the shopping?
Gordon: At this present time for me, it’s offering everything to the customers, because there are different levels of customers at the moment. To say everybody must queue up, everybody must go for this process, is a little bit odd in today’s world.
Sarah-Jayne: I think you’re absolutely right, Gordon. It’s about choice, isn’t it? And it’s about making sure that everybody has the best experience that they can have.
Gordon: The customer will tell you what he wants, or what they want, when they want it. Just listen to the customer. They’re always your main source of income, your main source of what you’re looking for.
RFID, AI, and Technology Galore
Sarah-Jayne: In terms of the operations side and improving that, should stores put a higher priority on technologies like RFID? We’ve already talked about stock supplies and tracking those and making those better. Should real-time inventory tracking be a higher priority do you think, Gordon?
Gordon: Yes. Inventories have always been a bit of a nightmare for retailers, keeping them up to date. And yes, when you look at RFID as a total solution, the return on investment is there in such a strong case.
Dean: Do you use BlueStar artificial intelligence for any aspect of your technologies?
Gordon: Actually, our shelves in our new warehouse, we have been looking at some of these different ways of picking and things like that. We are starting to work with different companies and looking at different ideas ourselves. Because this technology is coming. Understanding it for different things, even as far as wayfinding and stuff like that. It’s the new technology that’s coming through that makes sense when used in the right way.
Sarah-Jayne: We’re coming to the million-dollar question here, which is, how do you work with Intel to help retailers deliver these new technologies and innovation?
Gordon: Intel has always been at the back of everything we’ve done, all the way down to the endpoints, from using Intel for servers all the way down to standard touchscreen terminals. We’re using one touchscreen terminal; we now offer from 10-inch to 65-inch in stores. There’s so much.
We forget all about this when we see, and we’re playing with the screens. But there’s a PC running behind giving it the power, giving the graphics, giving everything it needs, it’s generally Intel powered. For me, Intel’s a great team player in this. They fully understand our marketplace.
Sarah-Jayne: Can you give us some examples of the merchants that are using these technologies to find the success?
Gordon: Well, if we just purely talked about the UK, I think realistically you’ll find Intel inside every single self-checkout in supermarkets, and every single checkout being used. So regardless, potentially somebody’s been close to an Intel chip being used every single week they go shopping. It’s as simple as that.
Sarah-Jayne: Yeah. So, they’re everywhere around us.
Gordon: Yes. And that’s from anything that’s computerized. Again, we forget all about our back office and warehousing, everything like that. It’s all running Intel chips.
Serving Customers of Every Generation
Sarah-Jayne: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Gordon: I did a few presentations to some high-end retailers last year, and they asked me to sit down and look at their ideas. Where are we now? If they were changing things, what would they change? And yeah, I looked at it and said, “We still are, and still will be for quite some time, in that middle of certain generations—younger generations being used to things and wanting things, and older generations accepting things and understanding things.”
So, as you say, we’re still having some people wanting to go around, chat, with a trolley, fill it up, put things onto a belt, have those conversations. It’s just giving everybody opportunities.
And it’s quite strange, I’ve always remembered the Christmas tree one. For a big retailer to sell Christmas trees outside always used to be, how do we get a till point all the way outside? It’s got to be one of our normal tills. So on, and so forth. In today’s world, you can grab a payment device, grab a handheld reader, and send somebody outside in an hour.
Sarah-Jayne: I suppose that self-service has revolutionized the speed in which these people can actually think, “Yeah, I’ve got my stuff, I can go.”
Gordon: In this day and age, things don’t have to be big, all-singing, all-dancing, weighing everything. All we need to do is scan a couple of things, accept the payment, and walk out the door. Now, I can do that on a little tiny seven-inch touchscreen and have lots of these available.
Sarah-Jayne: Is there a need for sort of greater self-service during certain hours?
Gordon: Yes, but then that’s I think down to sheer numbers of acceptance for me. I think you’ll find most people, most large stores now, are actually still understanding self-service technology and growing it themselves. If you build it, they will come. If it’s there and it’s quicker, people will use it.
The Role of IoT in Retail
Dean: I just want to go off topic somewhat and talk about what we discussed the other day. And that was the Internet of Things and Near Field Communications and RFID. Do you think IoT for you, as a business, works?
Gordon: Yes, it totally does If we just talk about RFID for a moment alone. Say, for instance, I’m a retailer, and I have sort of a basket environment where the customers come up with 10 things in the basket. If I’m using barcode, I have to find 10 barcodes, position 10 barcodes, put 10 barcodes in front of a something. The sheer fact of moving my hand across it, scanning all 10, and carrying on with the transaction speeds up the whole thing for the customer and the retailer.
When you look at RFID as a whole, can I scan it? Can I have a robot going around scanning every single item, knowing where it is? Is my loss prevention being covered because I can track items better? Can I speed things up at my till point?
It’s just a quick scan of items rather than each and every single item being found. And for me, acceptance of that technology is coming, because it speeds everything up, and it makes it more accurate at the same time. Yes, historically there’s always been a cost to it. But these costs have dramatically come down as the whole world accepts RFID and NFC more and more.
I mentioned the other day, years ago when I went through the change in access control from magnetic card technology, physically swiping that card through the system, to an RFID technology, where it’s just tap the card and open the door. That was a quick, swift, easy acceptance. It’s just the rest has to follow. For me, it’s making people’s lives easier in this day and age with technology is easily done. It’s just understanding and accepting it.
Dean: And I suppose the evolution to NFC and RFID, you talked about those magnetic strips and opening doors, for example. The next step in that would be to have the Star Trek-like doors, where you approach the doors and they open.
Gordon: As you say, the technology is there. There is actually something called a UHF, Ultra High Frequency, which they use in warehousing and things like that. It gives them a longer read rate. Because if you just picked on normal RFID, like a MIFARE card or something like that, you’ve got inches read rate.
But if you picked on UHF, in theory it’s used, for instance, a pallet on a forklift truck driving through a warehouse door. That’s how it could be used. And as you say, that’s only recognizing a serial number, populating it onto a database. What that does instantly would then just give a door access, instant rewards to go, “Right. That’s been populated at this point. Let’s open that door.”
That is coming. Because why couldn’t the door know that I’m walking down the corridor, and if it’s the only door that’s there, I’m within the security parameters, open the door for me.
Even with facial recognition nowadays, it’s getting so much better and we’re linking it to different types of marketing via interactive screens to draw people in and things like that. Why wouldn’t we use this technology for easier and greater things to make our lives better and quicker and easier so we can enjoy more?
New Tech for Loss Prevention
Sarah-Jayne: In terms of loss prevention, can you give us an example of how RFID might assist in inventory tracking?
Gordon: Sure. One of the ones I use quite a bit is RFID technology, each chip has its own unique serial number so that you’re able to track everything under a batch, but every individual item within that batch. And there’s a retailer that found it was losing a certain amount in a certain area. And because they’re actually able to track each RFID chip and know which serial number moves where in the building, and what goes on with it, they were actually able to work out their loss prevention.
The items were never actually leaving the store. People were actually being so bold to come in, collect the items from the floor level, put it straight into a bag, go straight upstairs to level two where the refunds were and ask for a refund with no receipts.
Sarah-Jayne: That’s incredible.
Gordon: Yes, it’s crazy when you hear it. Because each one had a unique serial number and because they were able to keep constant tracking of the tags and the actual items where they were, they realized the items never left their store. They didn’t go to the front. They went up the escalator into this department, and then arrived on the till point.
It’s just another form of loss prevention. Again, that whole thing could be tracked from the warehouse, all the way through. So, when certain serial numbers go missing in batches, if it’s recorded all the way through, you’ll physically know without opening boxes that that item was in there at that point, and not in there at that point.
Dean: There would be a whole logistics and supply chain across all of this. Because if we have goods coming from, say, Switzerland, arriving into Brussels, then surely those goods will be tracked and known. And when they’re delivered at the warehouse, then there’ll be traceability and trackability in those products.
They should be known at any place and time where they are. Having that unique serial number for each item gives you true trackability all the way through.
Sarah-Jayne: Yes. Just total connectivity where everything is traceable.