e-Shop ’til you drop: retail technology today and tomorrow

Vention
4 min readJan 19, 2021

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An in-depth look at the retail tech trends setting this decade’s new standard

Online retailers have proven time and time again their ability to overcome market meltdowns. In the most well-known example, an online bookstore went from barely surviving the dot-com bubble burst to becoming the world’s most valuable brand. And while Amazon has branched out into many different sectors in the two decades since, its primordial truth still stands: Buying at the click, touch, or tap of a button is incredibly convenient for the buyer — and quite profitable to the seller.

As with many other industries, 2020’s unprecedented restrictions set in motion new dynamics within retail. In a year of mandatory isolation, online shopping went from mere convenience to absolute essential for companies and customers alike.

Retailers had to either build from scratch or seriously upgrade their online presence to stay relevant and afloat; not surprisingly, investments in e-commerce went up 68% in 2020’s second half, with Target and Best Buy posting increases up to 175%.

Those numbers, however, all point back to the complex, behind-the-scenes universe that is retail tech. From e-commerce software to store automation, delivery streamlining, and supply chain improvements, here are some key trends being signaled into 2021 and beyond.

E-commerce enablement

Sales enablement is an industry on its own, with platforms, tools, and data working as middlemen to optimize business returns. As mentioned before, 2020’s sharp rise in e-commerce heralded considerable investments in platforms, new and existing.

Furthermore, headless commerce solutions — flexible architectures that “kill” the front-end, thus allowing APIs to reach any IoT device, from smartwatches to personal assistants — are slowly popping up as customers get used to gadgets other than computers and smartphones. And with it, payment and checkout tools are focused on getting safer and more intuitive.

Online personalization

Online shopping’s effectiveness depends on how accurately customers can find what they’re looking for. Companies, therefore, have a great incentive to come up with cognitive search solutions.

One such is automated product tagging, which catalogs by product feature like brand, material, size, etc. By AI-powering the process, brands can substitute manual tagging, thus vastly improving the users’ experience and the company’s inventory upload — a notoriously time-consuming task.

Store automation

In-person shops have been fiddling with different types of cashierless checkout approaches, where cameras and sensors recognize what items the customer is buying, without the need to physically scan their barcodes.

For e-shops, this is mirrored at the warehouse level with robots tasked with locating the products ordered for delivery. The machines automatically track inventory on selected items, updating in-stock units on the fly and ensuring smoother restock logistics.

Robotization of the supply chain

A fully autonomous supply chain is the ultimate retail tech dream, and this sector is making leaps to accelerate it into reality. Last-mile deliveries, arguably the hardest step to automate in e-commerce, are already being enabled by driverless vehicles for small distances and, at an experimental level, drones.

Meanwhile, autonomous mobile robots help optimize workers’ productivity in warehouses, including drones that manage inventory.

E-Groceries

Groceries were perhaps the final frontier in e-commerce. It’s one thing to e-shop for clothing or gear; it’s another to order perishable goods online.

But while the American grocery market reported a share of just 3~4% in online sales in 2019, this could jump to 10% or more by 2025. This change reflects the segment’s investments in retail tech, especially at the supply chain and last-mile delivery level.

In addition, supermarkets have reportedly signed more partnerships with the top 100 retail tech companies than any other sector, illustrating their willingness to invest in digital shoppers.

What’s next in online retail?

E-commerce has come a long way since the internet’s early days and will keep doing so, from advancing technologies to better understanding customer behavior.

The online shopping experience is optimized on a daily basis, with novel interfaces, smart warehouses, and strong back-end solutions all contributing to its increased seamlessness and security — something we can certainly expect to see continue.

One thing’s for sure: In an age when 15% of Americans shop online weekly, retail tech will always find a way to ensure cart contents reach their rightful, eager owners.

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