The high-tech touchless grocery store that Amazon opened in Seattle this past February was viewed by some in the grocery industry as an expensive gimmick, a multimillion-dollar publicity stunt. The future of grocery retail? No way. It’s never gonna work, many said.
Then a highly contagious respiratory disease called COVID-19 came along and blew up everyone’s idea of the future of retail. Now, food retailers are scrambling to add many of the contactless shopping features that Amazon was thinking about years ago when it first developed the Go concept. Back then, Amazon had no way of knowing that in the year 2020, going to the grocery store would be viewed by many consumers as a life-or-death matter. But Amazon did know that eliminating pain points — things such as navigating crowds, standing close to other people in a long checkout line, having to pass dirty cash to a cashier or swipe a credit card through a grimy terminal — was always going to be a good idea.
Today, making a shopper endure those pain points seems like an outdated way to retail. COVID has made touch-free grocery, sanitation and automation the new way forward in the grocery channel as consumers demand a safer shopping experience. Now, Kroger is touchless, Publix is touchless, and Walmart is more touchless than Target, or is it the other way around? Everyone, from the corner gas station to the local Outback Steakhouse to the nail salon down the street, is going touchless. And as the pandemic wears on, it’s clear that touchless commerce and many other changes, especially those having to do with safety and sanitation, are here to stay in the food and grocery industries.
At the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle, contactless shopping is on perfect display, with no touchpoints at all except for whatever products a consumer may grab to purchase and just walk out with.
Designing for COVID
Since the onset of the pandemic, many grocery retailers have been doing a heroic job of implementing a rigorous regimen of safety practices throughout the store: outfitting employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) and frequently cleaning shopping carts, checkout counters and payment PIN pads. Other retailers have focused on ramping up eCommerce services such as curbside pickup, scan-and-go, and contactless payments. But the next phase of post-pandemic food retail is going to require a lot more than spraying door handles and offering Apple Pay. It’s going to require a fundamental shift in the way that food retailers think about their stores.
“We’re thinking strategically with our clients about how to make improvements throughout the store so that you have smarter, more creative solutions than, say, one-way aisles,” says John Scheffel, VP, and director of visual design for API(+), a Tampa, Fla.-based design and architecture firm specializing in the grocery sector that has designed stores for Ahold Delhaize, Schnucks, Southeastern Grocers, Lowes Foods and The Fresh Market, among others. Scheffel says that many current pandemic-related practices in food retail may be temporary, but they will be permanent in terms of coming back again and again.
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