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Utilising retail technology for shopping during the pandemic and beyond

Utilising retail technology for shopping during the pandemic and beyond
  • United Kingdom
  • Other
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms - Disruptive Technology
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms - Technology


The world is slowly opening up for business. Interestingly, in Sweden, retailers have been deploying retail technology including mobile apps to help with social distancing and to decrease human to human contact in shops. The app will open shop doors, allow customers to scan goods and pay online. What does this mean for bricks and mortar shopping in the UK? Can Britain seek to deploy similar technology as it begins to open-up for business beyond supermarkets and garden centres? And what are some of the legal implications?

“Scan & go” is not a new technology in this country. Consumers can forego the tills and the queues, avoid human interaction, and pay without needing to bring their card or carry cash. A number of retailers had deployed this technology prior to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, it is one of the set of technology arsenal which will help with social distancing. Technically, of course, roll-out is not an overnight thing.

Retailers also need to consider the implications of the GDPR/privacy laws, and whether their data collection and usage is lawful. There is an opportunity for retailers to gain a huge amount of information about their customers here. Some e-tailers’ / retailers’ technology already take scan & go one step further by getting rid of the scan element; instead they use cameras, sensors, RFID and deep learning to understand when items have been removed from a shelf and purchased. While doing so they collect valuable information about how customers like to shop. But often this information is personal data, and, as such, will be governed by privacy legislation.

Given social distancing, use of robots and apps in certain Covid-19 related circumstances is already in place. For example, Walmart has been using robot cleaners and this is being considered by other businesses. This would be an easy technical deployment for UK retailers. Another example would be the Starbucks app. This has been around for some time and allows users to place their order by tapping a button and talking to a virtual barista. The app then transfers the order to a nearby store where an employee makes the drink. Users can then pick it up within minutes, bypassing stores’ long lines to the cash register. In the current world, virtual payment is added to ensure the least human interaction necessary.

Regardless of the pandemic, retailers have been looking to technology to differentiate themselves for many years with a utopian bricks and clicks omnichannel model. Technology has been seen as a key differentiator for retailers in creating customer experience and driving customer loyalty. Given the forced use of technology for shoppers during lock-down, it is inevitable that adoption will increase.

Aside from privacy, there are a lot of other legal considerations for building or adopting AI and automation including laws around product liability, employment, intellectual property, and cyber. Where liability lies, if these solutions go wrong, is also key to consider. The laws around AI, robotics and automation are evolving, with many relevant pieces of legislation just coming into force or up for consultation with a strong focus on the areas above as well as the need for data transparency and governance. There is also a large focus on ethics and ensuring no bias is introduced into the solutions, especially those with a consumer angle. Retailers will need to keep a watching brief on the new laws as they come into force, and liability and risk will need to be well-managed by retailers adopting technology to drive forwards their businesses.

International Head of Artificial Intelligence & International Head of Technology Sector

Retailers must be transparent with customers about what they are doing with the data they collect and follow other requirements set out by privacy law. Customer consent is likely to be the easiest lawful basis for processing personal data of consumers in such an instance.

It should not be forgotten that scan & go and similar technologies can require the integration of several third parties, including payment processors or other smart technologies. It is vital, as with all contracts where personal data will be shared with multiple parties, to ensure that, to the extent that third parties are acting as the shopping company’s processor, appropriate contract terms are put in place, reflecting the mandatory provisions of the GDPR/privacy legislation.

What about the contact tracing app itself? Clearly, if deployed/utilised in the UK, this will help with social distancing in shops. This isn’t considered in any detail in this article, given this isn’t a retailer-specific technology, however, clearly, uptake may help encourage people to feel more confident to come back to shops.

Undoubtedly, more brands will look to use AI and robotics as a USP to draw in consumers and drive up sales. AI in the retail sphere is in its infancy but its momentum is potentially unstoppable; in fact, it is seen as being crucial to online retail and e-commerce. Businesses that ignore this rising trend are likely to find themselves struggling in this ever-competitive race to become “innovative”, using AI to better understand, connect with, and create superior experiences for consumers. AdTech and targeted ads are a huge part of this.

The Guardian recently reported that 21% of the workforce could be left unemployed following the pandemic. It is highly likely some of these jobs will be automated and replaced by robots or other automation or replaced fully or in part by use of AI, as businesses look to increase efficiency. Boards are considering if technology can reduce cost by replacing workers. Robots in shops are inevitable.