Retail tech trends to watch out for in 2024

December 18, 2023 | By RetailME Bureau

Retail tech trends to watch out for in 2024

The past few years have been full of ongoing, unprecedented challenges for retailers. Rather than a smooth return to the pre-pandemic world, the receding of global lockdowns has brought new challenges across the spectrum – from higher costs to the persistent threat of recession – all weighed down by multiple global conflicts showing just how connected our world is. 

However, retailers have proven they’re resilient, creative and know their consumers arguably better than ever, generating a sense of momentum leading into 2024. And with many financial institutions predicting a less challenging macroeconomic environment ahead, it’s all leading to some cautious optimism.

Furthermore, there have been several key innovations in technology this year which will provide new tools to help offset any uncertainty.  Of course, chief among them in terms of global interest is artificial intelligence (AI).  Though we are still in the early days of understanding it’s potential – picture the internet in 1995 or mobile in 2002 – the changes will be profound.

According to Zebra’s 16th Annual Global Shopper Study, 85% of retail shoppers report being satisfied with their in-store experience, up 9% from last year. But 78% of shoppers also say they prefer a seamless blend of in-store and online shopping, so the bar will continue to be raised. 

It has become clear that efficiency, flexibility and resilience will be key to surviving next year, as well as the next long-term normal.

With that context in mind, here are the top transformational trends/predictions for 2024, as shared by Hozefa Saylawala, Middle East Director at Zebra Technologies exclusively with IMAGES RetailME.

#1: Optimised inventory – all aspects, including loss prevention will be critical

Unsurprisingly, having the products a customer wants is crucial. It’s the core of what a retailer is about. In Zebra’s 16th Annual Global Shopper Study, both in-store and digital customers rated product availability and product selection as the top two reasons they chose shopping a particular physical or digital retail location. 

What’s new, however, is the stakes are higher than ever. On the inventory supply side, expect continued supply and pricing challenges. On the inventory demand side, consumers can comparison shop in the blink of an eye from their smartphones, with inflation making it difficult to predict future consumer behaviour. To top it all off: retail loss and theft have reached unprecedented levels, and there is a growing awareness and expectation that retailers contribute to global sustainability efforts. Besides getting the obvious need to place the right orders – the right assortment, sizes etc. – retailers in 2024 will need to take a comprehensive view of inventory across several key dimensions:

  • Real-time on-shelf availability: Getting inventory correct requires a 360-degree AI-driven view that starts with ordering and moves end-to-end throughout the product lifecycle, optimising through transport, receiving, counting and merchandising.
  • Modernise in-store fulfillment: Real-time view of inventory location.
  • Asset Protection: Increase inventory performance by active theft and fraud practices and investments.

The goal is to move up the maturity model across these dimensions from manual to tech-enabled processes, and ultimately to guided, automated systems.

Specific inventory trends to watch in 2024:

  • RFID everywhere
    • RFID technology in the retail store environment has been around for years, but evolutions in the tag size, cost and printability are driving new, high-value use cases that are poised to take off. Further, mandates from massive global retailers are driving “source tagging” across many segments and categories. 
    • RFID can both decrease the amount of time it takes to count inventory and dramatically increase a retailer’s knowledge of where products are located. RFID also provides a deeper understanding of shrink.
    • Knowing exactly what and where an item is allows for a richer analysis of loss vectors, even those further back up the supply chain before the store.
    • Look for the power of these combined RFID use cases to drive big adoption next year and expect these to promulgate especially in the food and logistics sectors.
  • Real-time inventory positioning systems
    • Retailers are experimenting with a number of technologies to sense the current position, quantity and pricing for items in their stores. 
    • Key options include RFID (as mentioned above), visual systems (with fixed or mobile cameras) and/or IoT-enabled shelves connected to advanced computer vision (ACV), weight sensors or electronic shelf labels. These may also provide the foundation for loyalty-driven advertising networks, further boosting retailers’ profitability. 
    • Over time, these will be foundational for the cashier-less store, but in 2024, the sweet spot of innovation will be around inventory management.
  • Artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML)-based data patterns and actioning
    • Retailers for years have looked inward to their own point of sale (POS) and inventory management systems to look for issues and opportunities. What’s accelerating in 2024, however, is turning this exception-based reporting (EBR) into more robust actions.  
    • Look for retailers to connect operational and shrinkage insights into actions through smarter analytics – not just identifying exceptions, but also prescribing actions and connecting with workforce management task engines. 
    • In 2024, these systems will have fewer reports, but better prioritisation and vectors for real-time actions.

#2: A seamless, unified commerce experience across channels

While more than 80% of retail shoppers in Zebra’s 16th Annual Global Shopper Study agree that the ability to see, touch or try products are an essential part of shopping, they also want to interact digitally in the store, using flexible self-serve payment solutions, getting timely deals and coupons, looking up products or engaging with an associate who uses a handheld device for customer support. Once unthinkable concepts are now seen at scale, for example, picking up your coffee that was ordered from an app, or buy-online-pick-up-in-store, buy-online-return-in-store and buy-online-pick-up-at-kerb are now so commonplace they are hardly even differentiators. 

Consumers today demand previously siloed experiences about how they browse, learn, acquire and consume a retailer’s product to be seamless and interchangeable. This tectonic shift is driving a rethink of all retail operations, and arguably this change has already happened–most retailers have at least begun the transition. 

In 2024, the expectation is that these experiences will be further cemented and, most importantly, that retailers will have to execute them more profitably. There are several key foundational elements to increase the profitability of the omnichannel retailer:    

  • Modernise in-store fulfilment: Real-time inventory views to streamline order fulfillment tasks.
  • Broadened view of the distribution network: A more versatile view of stores, warehouses and distribution centres where ecommerce distribution and store fulfillment capabilities overlap.
  • Optimise reverse logistics: Drive efficiency and better business outcomes for inevitable returns.

 Retailers in 2024 will continue to evolve along these recommended vectors:

  • Ensure seamless integration of digital and physical touchpoints, offering ecommerce is no longer a differentiator. Consumers today expect all touchpoints of a retail product or purchasing experience to be cohesive.
  • Assess Generative AI for creating and maintaining data between contexts, deploying speech, images, music and video consistently.
  • The POS is evolving as more than just a purchase point into the backbone of click and collect, store fulfillment, clienteling and smart checkout.

#3: Empowered front-line associates – technology wins praise for elevating customer experiences

For many retailers, front-line associates are their largest investment. Additionally, many associate jobs are high effort/low reward, and many now go unfilled. Even worse, these associates are a key element of winning and keeping customers.

The solution?

Human-centred automation, which means more bots and software to do the repetitive and tedious parts of a job, freeing associates for higher value work such as assisting customers. By optimising workforce management, retailers can accurately forecast workforce needs, matched with appropriate skills and tenure to optimise schedules for employees and apply easy mechanisms for time off, shift swaps etc. Streamlining communication task management can also improve overall efficiency by optimising and simplifying task execution.

Trends to empower associates in 2024:

  • The right devices for the right employees
    • The recent Zebra Global Shopper Study also had significant insights into attitudes and beliefs of retail workers. Almost 85% of workers agreed that enabling employees with the latest technology helped them serve customers better, and they felt valued by their employer.
    • Sharp increases in the number of devices retail associates can access for their jobs. Top tech asks from front-line workers include handheld barcode scanners, handheld mobile computers, mobile POS devices, company-provided smartphones and headset or push-to-talk communication devices.
    • These same devices and the actions they improve are high on retail decision-makers priority lists as well.
  • Workforce analytics and smart tasking
    • Workforce analytics are tools and processes that help optimise scheduling, compliance, recruiting, training, performance management and payroll. Even if it’s Excel or paper, all retailers use some sort of system for this function. Modern systems use AI/ML to simplify complex store workflows and build in real-time prioritisation of the myriad of tasks a retail front-line worker could do at any moment. In fact, nearly eight-in-ten retail workers said they prefer automatically being prescribed tasks for managing their day versus figuring it out themselves. 
    • Done right, these tools can lower the total need for front-line workers while improving their jobs. 

#4: Elevated in-store experience

Another key trend emerging post lockdown is large increases in the number of consumers that are willing to try new and different in-store consumer technologies. The latest Zebra Global Shopper Study shows large increases in the number of consumers who are willing, preferred or have a growing affinity for self-checkout options including contactless payments, in-store self-checkout, smart phone self-checkout, “anywhere checkout,” location-based coupons and electronic shelf labels.

Further, consumers overwhelmingly signal a desire to make the store experience fast and efficient with 7 in 10 saying they prefer to get in and out of a store quickly. This presents an opportunity for retailers to invest in technologies that both improve jobs for their front-line workers and profitably improve the customer experience. 

Key strategic elements driving checkout trends include enhancing the checkout experience to be faster and more accurate and improving in-store service – this can be as simple as offering home delivery of an item that’s out-of-stock, or as personalized as clienteling, where retailers have a clear path to differentiation of their in-store experience.

Customer experience trends to look for in 2024:

  • Smart checkout
    • At the top of the maturity model for smart checkouts are various technologies to recognize all selected products, sum up the basket and provide a total amount due; apply loyalty or promotional benefits as well as identify the consumer and tender payment. While this will not be mainstream yet in 2024, there are steps retailers can take next year to start to reap the benefit. The two more desired are contactless payment and self-checkout with nine in 10 consumers rating both as highly desirable in the latest Shopper Study.
  • Buy online pick up at curb
    • When they started, QSRs didn’t offer a drive through.  Consumers were required to go into the store for order and purchase.  Something similar is happening with many retail segments around curbside pickup.  Retailers are seeing exponential growth in these purchase paths, which is starting to cause downstream implications on everything from order runners to parking lot configurations.  Look for this trend to continue in 2024.
  • Comparison shopping to beat inflation
    • Another area retailers need to expect and enable is the current consumer’s elevated desire to comparison shop.  They will do this from the store or at home.  This puts a significant premium on a) keeping real-time inventory accurate, b) being able to change prices digitally to match the competition, and c) offering flexible delivery solutions from BOPIS to ship to home.
  • Upgraded employee tools
    • Another key trend identified by the recent Shopper Study is that consumers often have better tools and data than store employees do. A high ROI way to solve this in 2024 is company-provided devices for front-line workers that allow them to check inventory, prices, loyalty options; answer customer questions; and execute out-of-stock options (such as ship to home) as well as operational uses such as shelf maintenance and training.
    • Further, surveyed associates overwhelmingly said, given the complexity of their jobs, they would much prefer a tool or system tell them “what to do next”. The right device and tasking software makes this possible.
    • This is yet another area where AI should play a pivotal role.

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