Today, when I go to my local HEB (grocery store for those who do not live in Texas), I find myself weaving around a variety of “personal shoppers” and their multi-level carts as they select items for as many as eight customers at a time. This is not a criticism of HEB, they, like others, are simply responding to the reality of the times.
Twenty years ago, the concept of “personal shoppers” and curbside pickup was not something any of us thought about. But suddenly a pandemic and many advances in technology allowed people to shop and buy what they need, without risk of being exposed to the virus that gripped the nation.
Today, the virus is still here. Many do not believe the risk today is as great as when the pandemic first hit, but the “personal shopper” and curbside pickup trends seems to be growing and will likely continue to be part of the future.
Another consequence of the pandemic is a sizable portion of the population no longer wants to work, in large part due to the government paying them more to stay home than they could earn on the job.
Amazon has also seen huge growth during this same period, with fulfillment centers springing up all over the country and their delivery fleet vehicles on nearly every street in America while, much of the work in these fulfillment centers is performed by robotic machines.
Add to all of this, the rise in professional retail theft. Five years ago, retailers on average lost $4 for every $10,000 in sales, now in 2022 they are losing over $7 per $10,000 in sales to what the industry calls shrinkage. Shrinkage is all retail loss, with shoplifting representing the largest slice of that loss.
I expect that in the future a retailer like HEB, will look at all these factors and adopt a new retail model. I say HEB because I believe they are uniquely positioned to evaluate this concept and then expand it to other communities.
What is this concept? A large warehouse store where no customers enter the building. Environmental controls based on the needs of the products and not the comfort of customers. No check stands, no need for eye-catching displays, just shelves and coolers with products…and robots. Sure, there would be a few employees, but much of the work would be done by robots that do not need breaks or health insurance and who do not steal.
Customers would go online, make their selections, pay electronically and then the robots would collect the items and move them to pick-up point. The customer would receive a text or email with an access code and a time frame to pick up the purchase. The customer go to the pick-up area, enter their code, and collect their items. No personal interaction, limited activity on the business property, and no chance for an employee to be harmed by a would-be thief.
Some high-end stores, would build entrances with individual customers stalls, constructed of two-inch thick plexiglass and teller-style drawers. Customers would have to insert their credit card, and have it approved for purchase before they can even look at an item. They would view all the products on a touch screen and select the one they would like to consider for purchase. The customer would be allowed to handle only one item at a time. If they flee with the item or damage it, the customer card would be charged. If the customer returns the item and no purchase made, then the credit card information would be cleared from the system and the next customer could be allowed to enter and the process begins again.
Perhaps neither of these retail models will be developed. But, with history as our guide, one thing is certain, retail in America is going to change if retail is going to survive.
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