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Contactless Commerce Is the Future of Retail

Contactless commerce is already starting to emerge across retailers in what feels like a taste of things to come. Here’s what that looks like.

10 min read

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It surely happened to you. You went online and found a dress, a shirt, or some pair of pants that you loved. You couldn’t have pressed the buy button faster. As you waited for the delivery, you checked the pictures and imagined how good it would look on you. Finally, your package arrives, you try your new clothes on and—what? Didn’t you order a medium size? And what about this fabric? This isn’t what you expected!

Online shopping has those things, which aren’t limited to clothing purchases, either. From buying food and perfumes to getting new furniture or tech, there’s plenty that can go wrong when making online purchases. That’s mainly because there aren’t enough videos, pictures, or descriptions that can replace the experience of actually being in a store seeing things for yourself.

That right there is e-commerce’s biggest challenge. While many people thought that online shopping’s greatest obstacle was getting people on board with buying things remotely, the COVID-19 pandemic showed them that the general population is more than willing to buy anything and everything online. The problem for the real industry is, then, to provide a rich and consistent purchase experience with as little contact as possible. That’s what contactless commerce is all about.

Naturally, contactless commerce exceeds the e-commerce realm to encompass the in-store experience as well. Truth be told, the aim of contactless commerce is to provide a frictionless shopping experience across all buying channels, be they a physical store, an app, or a website. This omnichannel nature of contactless commerce calls for a new approach to how brands sell, which can only come from a combination of next-generation technologies.

Sounds too vague? Don’t worry. Contactless commerce is already starting to emerge across retailers in what feels like a taste of things to come. Here’s what that looks like.

A Tech-led Experience

The idea of contactless commerce necessarily relies on new technologies to become a reality. You already know the usual suspects: machine learning, computer vision, big data analytics, augmented reality, sensors, beacons, and robots. Through a smart combination of these and other technologies, businesses can completely revamp their shopping experiences and reimagine how they sell—without the need for contact.

Take Amazon Go as a clear example of contactless commerce. One of the most widely known contactless shopping experiences in the world, this smart store relies on sensors and computer vision to offer a Just Walk Out experience. You probably have seen the video already: Customers enter the store, pick up the items they want, put them in their carts, and walk out. All of the items are automatically scanned and the total price is instantly charged to the customer’s account.

That isn’t the only example. China-based retail giant JD.com has been opening “unmanned stores” for years now, following a similar structure to the one used by Amazon. These stores use RFID codes as well as facial and image recognition to track all client activity. RFID tags allow customers to learn a lot of information about products, including price, existing stock, and range, among other things. These stores, on the other hand, rely on sensors to better understand client flow, customer preferences, and product placement.

But those are far from being the only uses for a technified store. AI-enabled mirrors (like the ones used by Uniqlo) power digital fitting rooms where people only need to stand in front of the mirrors to see how a product would look on them. Likewise, makeup mirrors and 3D avatars also help with buying clothing in-store, with the latter being a great option for remote purchases, too. 

Redefining Retail

One of the things that defines online shopping is how visual the experience actually is. When buying things online, customers only have the possibility to see photos, watch videos, and read descriptions about the products that interest them. Possibilities aren’t that limited in physical stores, as clients can touch, grab, and smell what they are buying. Can contactless commerce reproduce that?

Not yet, but researchers are aiming for it. Digital olfactory solutions are trying to transmit aromas over the internet while radically innovative systems like the lickable screen want to help with taste transmission. While these are just research projects, they show that there are innovators wanting to push the boundaries of what tech can do, especially for the retail industry. Imagine being able to taste a beverage or smell a perfume right from your smartphone before purchasing it!

Retailers are also trying to leverage new technologies to offer new ways for consumers to interact with their stores. For instance, there are kiosks that are trying to answer questions about products and services without forcing clients to go through lengthy menus or write questions down. They do so by using voice-enabled AI systems, which can even interpret vocal tones, pitch, and timbre to provide context-appropriate answers.

Voice-activated solutions are also popping up in the retail ecosystem to help clients with their purchases. In a way that’s similar to how smartphone assistants help us in our everyday lives, these virtual assistants are looking to empower the retail systems with personalized recommendations based on the customer’s historical data. A great example is what Carrefour is doing with Google Assistant, a system that makes recommendations based on preferences, price, and availability.

There’s even ongoing research to use AI-powered algorithms to use facial recognition for payments. This would relieve people from having to access apps to pay for their purchases or from swiping cards at automated readers. Of course, there’s the ongoing concern about the use of this technology, which is why this solution feels like an outlier rather than a potential standard. 

Retail is Already Eyeing the Future

While some of these solutions might sound like an introvert’s dream, they are actual solutions that are being looked at or implemented as you read this. All of these constitute the foundations for contactless commerce, which is the future of retail. And I’m not saying that out of personal desire — the retail industry is certainly moving towards contactless solutions and highly complex systems for a frictionless experience.

Of course, we’re somewhat far from truly contactless commerce. The in-store experience is vastly different from the online one and that will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, some of the issues you experience today might be gone sooner rather than later. In fact, using AR and VR you can already check for the fit of a jacket or the look of a new piece of furniture in your apartment.

So, while you won’t enjoy the solutions listed above in the next few months, you can feel confident that they’ll make their way into the mainstream eventually and one step at a time. That’s because retailers are already eyeing the future and, for the looks of it, it has “contactless” written all over it.

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