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    New age solutions to make stores smarter

    Photo: iStock

    There is a sea of technological solutions that can make a local store run much more efficiently and smoothly. However, any technical innovations should not disrupt the most important assets of an independent convenience store – the close relationship with the community, flexibility and most importantly, personal touch.

    Technology, when in-line with the exact needs of retail, can go a long way in making businesses’ operations much easier and hassle free. It isn’t just an accessory; it’s the secret sauce that can transform a mundane corner store into a powerhouse of convenience whose owner and staff have the data on fingertips as well as time and knowledge to serve shoppers personally.

    Some recent tech solutions have made daily operations easier and smooth, thus freeing a lot of time and manpower.

    For instance, Volumatic’s all-in-one cash handling solution not only validates banknotes and immediately identifying counterfeits but also counts and stores notes securely at point-of-sale (POS), reducing the risk of till snatches and shrinkage. It is already long-established at the POS in Tesco, Morrisons, the Co-op Food Group and Nisa stores.

    Mike Severs, Sales & Marketing Director at Volumatic, says, “As the retail landscape continues to evolve, it is necessary for business owners to collaborate in identifying and implementing solutions that can uphold efficiency, accessibility, and customer satisfaction at the till-point.”

    There are many other new-age tech solutions that have already cemented their place in convenience channel. Snappy Shopper and Jisp are both prime examples.

    Retailer Girish Jeeva, owner of Girish’s Premier store at Barmulloch in Glasgow, vouches for Snappy Shopper, saying that the service has helped the store’s home delivery orders to increase multiple times.

    Jeeva says, “When we first started on the Snappy Shopper platform we were only doing £500 in sales per week but this has increased majorly reaching £10,000- £13,000 and is still growing to this day.

    New age solutions to make stores smarter
    Image from Snappy Shopper

    “Our 1p deals run in tandem with Snappy Shopper help our community grow and allow us to help our customer base during times when a lot may struggle such as the holidays. We have reached 500+ deliveries weekly and this is increasing week in and week out thanks to the service and experience we provide.”

    While Snappy Shopper puts local stores on the map of quick delivery, Jisp’s Scan & Save helps them compete with nearby retail giants by arming them with supermarket-like loyalty reward schemes.

    Once in store, shoppers simply scan, tap and redeem the vouchers at the till point. Scan & Save solution offers exclusive discounts funded by leading brands to shoppers while customer incentives and voucher redemption rewards increase the number of repeat shoppers for the store.

    In the words of Jav Iqbal, owner of Nisa Local Feltham Road in Ashford, joining Jisp was “one of the best decisions” he ever made.

    Another form of innovation is electronic shelf edge labels (ESELs). Like their bigger rivals, independent stores are also moving towards electronic labels to eliminate the need for manual updates and reduce the risk of errors. Such solutions not only ensure accuracy and efficiency but also enable store staff to focus on other more value-adding tasks.

    Most recently, East of England Co-operative Society, one of the largest regional co-operatives in the UK, has signed an agreement with Pricer for a full-chain installation of digital labels across all 120+ of its food stores. The solution will enable the chains to centrally manage and control pricing, product information, and promotions across all electronic shelf labels in all connected stores.

    While most stores are using one or more such apps, new-age retailers like Jeeva are stepping ahead to give their customers a complete supermarket-like experience. Apart from other innovations, his store also offers a complete immersive yet customised experience. The store’s FM Radio, powered by RETaiL AI Limited, plays tailored and personalised in-store promotions and advertisements alongside regular music and news bulletin.

    Advanced sensors and digital devices are also being integrated in stores to provide real-time data and analytics about product inventory, pricing and customer behaviour. Such smart shelves can automatically detect when products are running low, send restocking alerts to store employees and update prices in real time.

    Crime and beyond

    While embracing new technology might be the need of the hour, some technological solutions are proving to be more than just a necessity and almost a survival tactic. Crime is one such realm where convenience retailers are increasingly taking refuge in technology and AI to save their businesses.

    Veesion is one such AI solution for store owners that aims to eliminate shoplifting by recognizing suspicious behavior in customers. The software, once installed and integrated with the store’s CCTV, continuously analyses to spot distinct gestures and swift body movements associated with shoplifting. In case of any incident, store owners receive an alarm along with a short video clip of suspicious activity on their app, which allows them to act and deal with the suspected shoplifter.

    Another interesting innovation here is Chirp Protect, which not only serves as a strong deterrent but also claims to provide real time visibility and alerts when theft occurs. This system basically has a range of tags designed to protect a variety of high-theft products such as alcohol, baby formula, detergents and meat and cheese.

    It comes with a small cubed “Hub” which is attached above or close to the exit. If a tagged product is taken too close to the Hub, the alarm goes off and the staff is alerted.

    Retailer Neil Godhania, owner of Neil’s Premier in Peterborough, mentions in a recent social media post how Chirp Protect installed in his store is showing “outstanding” results.

    Godhania writes, “Since implementing the system, it has not only served as a strong deterrent but also provided real time visibility and alerts when theft occurs. While we understand that eliminating shoplifting entirely is improbable, Chirp Protect has undeniably reduced its impact on staff, time, and profit loss.”

    New age solutions to make stores smarter

    On the other hand, face screening apps can alert the store owner even before the crime has happened.

    Facewatch is one such system wherein store owners can log images of shoplifters and abusers so that when the same person visits again, the system sends an alert. Using Facewatch, the staff can avoid conflict much before the shoplifters (who are mainly repeat offenders) have even picked the products.

    In the words of multi-estate retailer Dave Hiscutt, after Facewatch being installed in his stores, the offenders are now repeatedly being turned away at the point of entry, as a result of which they have reduced targeting his stores altogether.

    Apart from Facewatch, Hiscutt’s stores are also equipped with StaffSafe, a communicative intervention security solution through which trained operators keep eyes on store through CCTV and speak through speakers. If needed, operators take control of threatening and potentially dangerous situations in real time, thereby reassuring the staff and alerting the emergency services too where required.

    Soon joining in this league is AURA’s Retail Response, an app that promises to enable rapid provision of vetted SIA security officers to specific locations. The app is scheduled to be launched by the end of April or early May.

    Alex Booth, Managing Director at AURA, told Asian Trader, “We have established a network of SIA licensed security officers who work for security companies the length and breadth of the UK.

    A retailer or shop manager can download the AURA Retail Response App and request ad-hoc and rapid security guard attendance at the press of a button in times of need.”

    Emphasising that the app does not intend to replace the police, Booth stated that having a registered security guard, turning up in a security vehicle with a security vest, can hugely help in certain situations.

    Word of Caution

    No matter how much technical upgrade is required or how urgently, retailers simply can’t afford to let innovations distract them from their main business goals.

    A clear example of tech not able to catch the pulse of retail is self-checkout tills. Leading retail giants, who several years ago had enthusiastically taken the leap of faith in technology, are now ripping out self-checkout booths, saying they are more of a source of frustration rather than an aid to shoppers.

    When cashier-less technology made its debut, it was hailed as the future of retail. For shoppers, self-checkout was supposed to provide convenience and speed. Retailers hoped it would usher in a new age of cost savings.

    However, the tide is now turning as many retail giants are pulling a screeching U-turn. Supermarket chain Booths has axed almost all of the self-service tills in its stores, saying the decision was in response to feedback from customers who were finding the self- checkouts slow and frustrating to use.

    Self-checkout in some cases has caused more trouble than it’s worth. Archie Norman, chairman of Marks & Spencer, last November said shoplifting was becoming more common among middle class customers because of faulty checkouts as some shoppers started duping retailers by logging in cheap product and walking out with a much more expensive item.

    Clearly, the UK seems neither content nor ready for self-checkout tills to take over. Let’s not forget that many older people live on their own and for some, a chat at the checkout may be their only social interaction.

    Similarly, going completely cashless also does not seem to be a very great idea, particularly in the light of outages in recent weeks, when some stores were even forced to remain shut as they were unable to take contactless or card payments.

    In the mid of March over a span of three days, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Greggs’ have all had to close stores or found themselves unable to deliver orders because of problems with payment systems. The coincidence led to speculations that the companies were victims of a cyber-attack, but each of them later stated that the outage was due to a software update.

    Apart from its vulnerability, the outage also once again showed the importance of accepting cash as payment. Additionally, both card and mobile payments will undoubtedly continue to rise over the next decade and beyond, but it is evident from recent industry reports that consumers still want the choice of how to pay for things, and that very much includes cash.

    Severs from Volumatic says, “As cash handling experts, we regularly encourage retailers to offer their customers the choice to use cash as well as other payment methods, and the element of choice for customers extends to this too – while some shoppers are happy to use self-checkouts, others prefer to be served by a person.”

    Clearly, there is absolute necessity for convenience retailers to strike a balance between embracing technology and maintaining personal interactions and community activities alike.

    Moving forward, successful integration of technology should complement business operations, ensuring that convenience stores continue to thrive in an evolving retail landscape while nurturing their uniqueness. The future of retail might be tech and AI, but good old-fashioned human touch and common sense are here to stay for a long time to come.

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