An Introduction to COVID-Informed Retail Solutions: Part 2 of 3

Check out Part 1 here if you haven’t read it yet!

Part 2 of this series deals with Technology. As we saw with the previous topic of Transparency, Technology-based responses to COVID are already popping up in the retail environment. Contactless payment options, retail websites and apps, and remote ordering and delivery have seen huge growth since the beginning of the pandemic. However, just like physical solutions to the challenges presented by COVID, technological solutions have been implemented as quickly as possible without design consultation.

A major issue with quick tech fixes is that most do not adhere to the brand and aesthetics of the retailer. When technological solutions break the shopper’s immersion in the retail experience, the retailer’s brand is undermined. But even worse than being at odds with the brand, clunky and confusing interfaces can frustrate customers. Such missteps can easily stymie a potential sale. This is where design can make a difference. Designers can help guide retail towards a cohesive and intuitive experience, especially as current events push retail into unfamiliar virtual territory.

Beyond the obvious tech solutions in the age of COVID, there are numerous examples of cutting-edge technologies that are just beginning to make their way into the retail world. When thinking about emerging technologies in retail, we’re all familiar with the promise of the “virtual fitting room”. To me at least, this technology feels similar to self-driving cars: always being discussed, perpetually on the horizon, but never quite within reach. However, while using a body scanner to try on holographic clothing might be out of the question for many more years, trying on clothing and accessories with the help of your phone is entirely feasible. Warby Parker’s augmented reality app is an excellent example: using your self-facing camera, you can see what different styles of glasses might look like on your face in real-time. With a little imagination (and an understanding of what companies like Snapchat are already able to do with their live photo filters), it isn’t hard to imagine more creative uses of this technology in the retail space.

Another solution at the forefront of retail technology is “just walk out” retail. Check-out counters are one of the few required interactions during the retail experience, which can be stressful and dangerous during COVID. This is bad enough for shoppers, but the employees who fill these roles have to endure high levels of exposure all day. Amazon Go’s prototype grocery store in Seattle removes check-out from the equation, using overhead cameras and sensors to keep track of the items you place in your cart and automatically charge you when you leave the store. The system also enables smart inventory tracking, meaning that employees will be alerted when a particular item runs out, eliminating the need to walk around the store and visually assess stock levels on the shelves. This particular intervention has already taken off in a big way in other countries, like at the Suning chain of hypermarkets in China, so future presence in the U.S. is to be expected.

One final technology-based solution is the expansion of virtual queuing technologies to the retail realm. Virtual queues have been employed in entertainment for decades; Disney theme parks have been using the FastPass system since the late 90s. But in the midst of a global pandemic, finding intelligent solutions to prevent overcrowding has led to retail embracing these same systems. The UK’s ASDA supermarket chain was a notable early adopter of virtual queuing, equipping their app with the technology back in May of this year. Many restaurants have turned to platforms like Waitlist Me for the same purpose. As the pandemic continues, we can expect to see more retailers allowing their patrons to wait virtually rather than physically, reassuring them that their exposure to other shoppers will be minimized.

Before we start incorporating cutting-edge technology into all of our designs, however, there is one overarching consideration that we need to think about. As designers, we must ensure that the technological solutions we employ are easily accessible to all. Age demographics and socioeconomic status are especially important to consider; if elderly shoppers who struggle to operate a smartphone would find it difficult to participate, or if an individual without any smartphone at all would find it impossible, then our solution is no longer a solution for everyone.

Discussing technology in the retail space is an interesting premise for an article, and I would imagine that some readers may find it strange to delve into this area. Most interior designers have never been involved in fields such as app development, and might wonder why tech is suddenly so relevant to their work. One reason is that many technological interventions need a physical foothold in order to operate. “Just walk out” retail, for example, has enormous infrastructure needs that interior designers must be aware of as they shape a space. A second reason is that improper implementation of tech can interrupt the important work that interior designers are doing, even when it has nothing to do with a physical space. If fifty percent of customers are interacting with a badly-designed app instead of a well-designed brick and mortar store, then user experiences of the same business will be wildly different.

If we as designers don’t consider how the gears of physical and virtual intermesh, the public-facing brands we work so hard to strengthen are unlikely to be cohesive. All of this necessitates an intersectional way of thinking, either by offering UX services within our firms or by creating partnerships with providers in the UX space. At the end of the day design is design, and we need to support a positive experience for our users whether they’re shopping in person or from their couches.

Multidisciplinary designer, thought leader, and passionate believer that design is the solution to every problem. Designing a better world every day.