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A Retail Mindstep like None Before: The COVID-19 Crisis



Mindsteps, a construct created by astronomer Gerald Hawkins (no relation) several decades ago, refer to irreversible shifts in thinking that have shaped humanity; things like the development of imagery, writing, mathematics, the printing press, television, and computers.

In similar fashion, retail mindsteps refer to key developments that have shaped the massive fast moving consumer goods retail industry, such as the self-service store, product scanning, and, more recently, artificial intelligence. The ever-faster growth of technology fueled innovation is hastening the pace of these retail mindsteps.


And now we have the Covid-19 crisis - a mindstep like none before - that is happening just as key exponential growth technologies are converging, driving even greater acceleration in tech-fueled transformation and disruption. The confluence of Covid-19’s impact on people’s behavior with paradigm-shifting technologies will create indelible change across the massive retail industry.

Take, for example, the robots we see roaming the aisles in a growing number of stores. Some of these robots are doing more than scanning for out-of-stocks and pricing errors; they are using computer vision, AI, and machine learning to create a digital doppelgänger of the physical store. Why is this important? Because other technologies like 5G networks, big data, and AI, are converging to power explosive growth of augmented reality, a technology that overlays digital graphics and information onto the real world.

Gartner states that 100 million consumers will be shopping in AR online and in-store this year (2020). What’s going to drive this growth? Apple, Samsung, and other tech firms are poised to bring AR glasses to the market as consumer products, fueled by apps and development tools. Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a first quarter earnings call, claims that AR is going to pervade our lives. "This is the reason I'm so excited about it," Cook said during the call. "You rarely have a new technology where business and consumer both see it as key to them.”

Imagine a shopper in-store seeing information about the bottle of wine they just picked up appear in a window in the corner of their vision, providing information about the vineyard, the grape varietals, vintage, and more. Or the shopper heading down the baby aisle seeing personalized promotions and pricing appear on the retailer’s private label diapers, wipes, and formula. Or the shopper looking at the fresh salmon in the seafood case being able to virtually browse recipes for dinner that evening.


But for retailers to participate in this exciting new world, they must have the digital foundation; namely, a digital duplicate of the physical store. That’s why what those robots are doing is so important.


Historically, changes in consumer behavior occur over time, often in sync with the adoption of new capabilities (think the shift to online shopping) or pushed by economic conditions (think greater couponing after the 2008 financial crisis) . But rarely have we seen such a fast, massive shift in consumer behavior as that caused by the current Covid-19 crisis. The profound, simultaneously shared experience of quarantining and social distancing has collided with people’s need for social interaction and, taking advantage of new technologies, driven the need for community online. The desire - need - to connect virtually is strong as far-flung family members connect via FaceTime and business now Zooms. Even happy hour has gone online as we virtually convene with old friends back on the east coast over drinks.

This fundamental change in behavior will carry over into a post-Covid-19 world, as a large number of shoppers will avoid going to the brick & mortar store, having learned how easy it is to shop online. AR will be just as powerful at home, creating virtual shopping experiences, food prep ideas and instruction, cooking directed by a virtual chef, and more.


But we’re not done yet. The current crisis has, once again, made the local brick & mortar grocery store the hub of everyday life. And now retailers have a profoundly unique opportunity to take advantage of the confluence of new technologies and the mass migration online to position themselves as the hub of a virtual community in their marketplaces.


The possibilities go far beyond online shopping. Think of virtual wine tastings (already starting). Think of virtual cooking classes - supplemented with AR tech so the store’s chef is seemingly alongside the customer in their very own kitchen. Virtual tours of farms where the store sources local produce. The opportunities are endless.


In physics, accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Geneva, smash atoms together using great force to discover new particles, to give scientists new understanding of the universe. Like the LHC accelerator, the crashing together of converging exponential growth technologies with new consumer behavior caused by Covid-19, will create untold new possibilities for retail as we come out the other side of the current crisis. And now is the time to begin thinking about them.


Gary Hawkins is an author, speaker, and the CEO of CART (the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology). His virtual library can be found at retailmindsteps.com and he can be reached at ghawkins@retailmindsteps.com

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