File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

How 4IR is changing how we shop

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Feb 26, 2021

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As we emerge from the metaphorical wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are faced with a new reality. In many ways, our lives will never completely “return to normal”. Nowhere is the change more obvious than in that most basic human practice – how we make our purchases.

These changes go beyond the basic concept of “shopping”. Perhaps the lockdown has given us all time to consider the importance of our purchasing decisions, and what informs them.

Consumer values

The way shopping is changing is being driven by two factors: consumer values, and technology. The two are intimately intertwined.

As Huawei’s Consumer Business Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Akhram Mohamed notes, “new mobile broadband technologies mean people can access almost any goods they can think of. What they purchase then becomes a question of personal values. It’s now not just about what they can get, but what’s important to them.”

The pandemic has fundamentally shifted what is important to us.

Touch-free purchasing

For instance, health and safety are no longer just a vague consideration to which we pay lip service. It is now a matter of life and death.

This will not simply apply to the current era. In a sense, our society has lost its innocence. We have now seen how exposed we are to viruses. After this pandemic, there will be others, and our behaviours will have to be modified permanently to keep ourselves and our families safe.

Many of these new choices will be enabled by the technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and the vast amounts of data being generated by the Internet of Things, 5G, mass connectivity and Cloud services.

Fears around proximity transmission have led to the rise of contactless purchasing in stores, via QR codes, or apps such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. Cards now use near-field communication for fast, convenient transactions without any physical contact. Digital wallets are gaining in popularity, and Alibaba has even developed a Smile-To-Pay functionality that uses facial recognition.

An advantage of these digital transactions is enhanced authentication and monitoring, and the amount of data generated, which allows the full power of artificial intelligence to be leveraged for a better customer experience.

Enhanced e-commerce functionality

Ultimately, these health-and-safety considerations, as well as the risks now associated with public spaces, are also leading to an increase in e-commerce and online shopping. A recent Nielsen survey saw 29% of South African respondents report more online shopping during the pandemic.

However, the full possibilities of e-commerce have not been utilised until recently. As the numbers of users leaps, fashion e-commerce is now expanding to augmented reality try-on services, for everything from make-up to footwear.

E-commerce also dovetails comfortably with social-media platforms such as Instagram. Dynamic IG ads now target advertising to users and permit instant purchasing from social media. Artificial intelligence (AI) also comes into its own in the digital shopping space, allowing for purchase recommendations, and constant refining of algorithms to put consumers in touch with the brands and products that interest them.

Better with bots

The shopping-recommendation business is infinitely more effective with AI. Online, the process can be enabled via bots, and new solutions are even being developed to bring robot shop assistants to the physical space.

Where 5G and LTE coverage is universal, robots can access infinitely more shopping advice than a human assistant. Autonomous robots with 5G connectivity can also identify items that are out of stock, mispriced or misplaced, for an improved customer experience. They also constantly generate customer data, which helps refine the more customer-centric approach that defines modern retail.

Besides in-store retail robots, robotics is now also an integral part of the entire supply chain, being deployed in warehouses and depots to enhance efficiencies and accuracy in the fulfilment process and even for drone delivery. This also significantly improves the customer e-commerce experience – and the bottom line.

For example, an in-store robot called Pepper, developed by SoftBank, saw a 70% increase in foot-traffic within a week of being deployed at a pilot store. Revenue also saw significant improvements in early testing.

Customer first

It is connectivity that enables these revolutions in retail. The more data that can be shared, the better the customer’s needs can be understood and catered for.

This comes with both opportunities and risks, as retailers must assume responsibility for much of their customers’ data. A new social contract is emerging. Consumers accept that there are vast benefits from sharing personal data, but they expect the brands they deal with to handle that data securely and ethically.

At the heart of this modern retail relationship is the customer. Where previously, retailers were in a position of strength, now the customer holds all the access. Thanks to the globalised retail marketplace, the customer can take his or her business anywhere. Consumers will choose to transact with brands that meet their needs on a personal level, with complete security and peace of mind.

The democratising effect of mobile connectivity means that this new retail environment will be accessible to anyone with a mobile phone.

“Mass connectivity lubricates the wheels of the modern retail market,” says Akhram. “As LTE and 5G enhance mobile connectedness, more customers will have access to all the possibilities that 4IR offers. It’s empowering, it’s enabling, and it changes the brand-customer relationship forever.”

At a time when connectivity is power, our retail choices mirror our digital opportunities. Today, we can access almost any information we can think of – it’s up to us what we choose to do with that power.


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