As retailers faced the unprecedented challenges of 2020, some were able to quickly pivot from brick-and-mortar operations to e-commerce thanks to the use of technology that in some cases, store associates already used.
The ubiquitous smartphone proved to be a business-saving device for some, allowing their operations to quickly and accurately fulfill e-commerce and in-store pickup orders.
“It was really around scaling up in-store picking where suddenly order volumes doubled, tripled and basket sizes significantly increased,” said Christian Floerkemeier, CTO, vice president of product and co-founder of Scandit, a mobile computer vision company. “For those retailers that didn’t have order fulfilment [or] in-store order fulfillment processes deployed, it was really around rapidly developing these and deploying such new processes.”
Scandit allows retailers to use smartphones or other handheld devices to scan a bar code or item for more information or to look up information on an item, including whether it is in stock.
Floerkemeier presented several use cases of the company’s technology during a presentation Wednesday at the National Retail Federation’s Chapter One virtual conference. In each case, Floerkemeier showed how the retailer used the technology to quickly ramp up order fulfillment, create a verified identification program and even onboard hundreds of thousands of new employees quickly.
Target (NYSE: TGT) already had a significant online and e-commerce business prior to the pandemic, but Floerkemeier said Shipt, Target’s e-commerce delivery service, faced a challenge as COVID-19 lockdowns took hold.
Facing a tripling in online orders, Shipt needed to quickly onboard more than 100,000 new shoppers, and that meant training. Shipt utilized the Scandit technology to not only onboard and train those employees but also to help it better serve customers with more accurate tracking of inventory.
Shipt, Floerkemeier said, was able to onboard 40,000 new shoppers in just eight weeks.
“It’s interesting how such a large increase in professional shoppers or employees is possible, all through no group training, where all training is facilitated through an app,” he said.
Floerkemeier relayed a quote from Chace Burnette, the principal engineer at Shipt, who said having shoppers utilize scanning technology allowed it to stay on top of product shortages.
“Our shoppers provide a huge amount of vital data on stock availability as they are our hands in stores. With Scandit, every scan helps us confidently know exactly what is and isn’t available,” Burnette said.
Instacart had a similar issue, needing to hire 250,000 shoppers as demand for its services increased 500%, Floerkemeier said. Instacart had another issue, though, and that was an increase in alcohol being ordered.
“As part of COVID, the volumes of course increased and significant amounts of alcohol were purchased, and age verification was something that Instacart wanted to streamline,” Floerkemeier said. “So they deployed an age-verification technology within the app and that integration and rollout took only 10 days.”
The app allowed consumers to upload identification and the verification technology confirmed the age of the recipient, eliminating that step in the process for the shopper and ensuring the entire delivery experience could be contactless.
“It shows again the capabilities of having a smartphone with the camera built in and leveraging computer vision capabilities to make the life, in this case of the professional shopper, easier,” Floerkemeier noted.
Other retailers utilized scanning technology in various ways. One U.S.-based clothing retailer used the technology to empower its 4,500 employees to fill orders for curbside pickup, launching the program in just six weeks.
“Based on the availability of the smartphones in the stores and the merchandise in the stores, the team at this retailer decided to go and deploy an in-store fulfillment app where customers could show up at the door and pick up their orders rather than having them deliver it as … last-mile delivery from their centralized warehouses,” Floerkemeier said.
An unnamed U.S. grocer deployed a similar approach, turning every employee in its operation into a fulfillment specialist. The result was the grocer was able to handle twice the number of orders due to a streamlined approach.
“If you are running an in-store fulfillment application and you are picking anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 items per day, scanning another 1,000 to 2,000 bins every day, that means between 2,000 and 4,000 presses of a hardware button every day and that’s not something stores actually like [to do],” Floerkemeier said. “When you see this technology deployed in stores, one of the biggest things that the stores actually liked was there was no need to touch any button, they just activated the screen and the scan was automatically done.”
With online shopping here to stay – although maybe not at the elevated levels of 2020 – businesses need to streamline their processes, Floerkemeier said.
“If you leverage app technology, if you leverage mobile smartphones, if you leverage your existing IT infrastructure … retailers [are] able to roll out these processes in record time,” he said before noting some additional data based on Scandit users.
One retailer saw a 34% time savings simply due to not having to share devices, Floerkemeier said, while the average number of steps an employee took each day at a European retailer dropped from 20,000 to 10,000, creating more efficiency and improved customer service.
“Where does that come from? It’s around information – inventory levels, product information and product attributes – that was only available in the back room at a [computer],” he said. “If a customer had a question, the store associate would run to the shelf, write down a number, run to the back room, log out of the PC potentially, log in with their own account, look up inventory information or product information, record it and then walk back to the customer.”
That’s all been eliminated, he said, resulting in the savings.
As retailers develop their e-commerce strategies moving forward, they need to review these types of considerations, Floerkemeier noted.
“Running in-store picking operations carries cost,” he said. “It’s really important for retailers to think about effective routing and effective processes. Effective use of technology can help make in-store order fulfillment efficient.”