The world around us has changed significantly over the course of the past seven months or so, the impacts of COVID-19 endured by just about every person in every community on the planet. Consequences on society at large that resulted from the first pandemic wave were severe, creating scenes not too dissimilar from those imagined in some of the most chilling science fiction stories ever written. In efforts to curb the initial spike, mandatory health measures were instituted in most cities and countries, which often included the cordoning off of city parks and other spaces that had once served as common gathering areas, the cancellation of any and all public events, and the implementation of physical distancing rules which limited the number of people who could congregate in a public or private space at any one time. In short, the ways we had become so used to doing things were suddenly turned inside out, imposing on us a new kind of normal that we’re now collectively familiarizing ourselves with.
The repercussions felt by most segments and sectors of business around the globe as a result of these measures were also immediate and harsh, to say the least, the bottom lines of most companies taking an indefensible hit. And for retail, an industry so heavily reliant on human interaction and engagement, the effects were staggering, as brick-and-mortar storefronts and offices shuttered temporarily, reducing once bustling Main Streets to centres of relative inactivity, restricting the operations of retailers everywhere and inhibiting all possible growth.
Although precautionary restraints began to ease across Canada back in June of this year, populations in many provinces, as recognized by numerous health officials across the country, are now well and truly experiencing the impacts of a second wave of the life-threatening virus. And as the 2020 holiday shopping season quickly approaches, many experts in and around the industry, including Rick Snook, Business Development Manager for Retail and Banking at Axis Communications, contemplate just what our new normal looks like and the solutions that will be required to help retailers recover, sustain and grow in the short-term, as well as realize and capitalize on opportunities to flourish in the years ahead.
“The retail environment has been altered dramatically as a result of COVID-19,” says Snook. “And it seems very likely that many of the impacts of the pandemic will remain ongoing. It’s resulted in a big rethink for many within the industry as we all continue to learn the full extent of the effects caused by the virus and how subsequent changes to retail operations will impact the shopping journey for customers going forward. When you think of things like the implementation and increased use of curbside pick-up and delivery options, as well as other processes and aspects within the retail environment that have been impacted by the pandemic, an entirely new set of considerations and challenges are introduced to retailers. As part of these challenges, they’re tasked with the responsibility of continuously ensuring a shopping experience for their customers that’s as enjoyable, efficient and safe as possible.”
Altered Environments; Evolving Challenges
Now accountable for the responsible management of customer flow and occupancy levels within physical stores, as well as the safeguarding of their spaces by ensuring that visiting customers are abiding by physical distancing and facemask requirements, the burden on retailers related to the operation of their physical stores has perhaps never been greater. When these new demands are combined with traditional in-store complications like shoplifting and internal shrinkage, merchants’ need for retail technology solutions to help them meet these challenges and demands is just as great. And this, according to Snook, is where Axis Communications and its suite of services comes in.
The company, founded in 1984 by Mikael Karlsson, Martin Gren and Keith Bloodworth, has for decades been known as one of the global leaders in loss prevention and security network technology. However, a few years ago, recognizing a shift in the market and an evolution of the needs of the end user, Axis made the decision to expand its offering and services beyond video security surveillance to include a series of robust digital solutions. Through the combination of video analytics and network cameras, the company is today positioned to provide retailers with what Snook refers to as an “overall collateral” to help their businesses run as efficiently and safely as possible.
As part of Axis’ overall collateral, it offers retailers a means by which to meet these new challenges, providing technology that allows them to digitally monitor queues at the cash register and to count and track the number of visitors in their stores to accurately determine current occupancies. Snook explains that the latter of the applications can be used to assist greeters at store entrances or act as a standalone solution which electronically displays the number of customers in a building at any one time. Audio trip lines can also be integrated inside the store’s interior door to remind people to keep their physical distance of two metres or six feet and to make them aware of hand sanitizer stations located throughout the premises. In addition, Axis’ video technology is equipped to detect whether or not a person entering the store is wearing a facemask, and will alert the retailer with the information which they can then act on at their discretion.
Enhanced Business Intelligence
It’s all part of an offering that represents an added layer to Axis’ already dynamic levels of safety and security features and detection technology, providing protection for both visitors to retail locations as well as the in-store staff. However, what seems most compelling about the company’s offering today is the confluence of uses and applications of the technology, allowing retailers to not only ensure a safe and secure space, but to elevate their day-to-day and long-term strategies via the generation of data that enhances business intelligence, helping to inform everything from staff allocation and site performance to decisions concerning marketing, merchandising and operational efficiencies.
“What we’ve achieved by continuously building onto our solutions is make them multidimensional and multipurposed,” says Snook. “They’re built to help retailers tackle a number of different challenges that they face within their physical stores. Whether you’re talking about shoplifting, organized crime or slip-and-falls, or understanding the customer journey through your store, our solutions are equipped with the intelligence to help with all of these things, right across the board. In most cases, retailers have already got the cameras on site. It only makes sense for them to leverage the technology to help identify where customers are spending most of their time in the store, which products catch their interest and attention, and to analyze any and all other visitor trends that might help increase efficiencies and enhance the in-store experience, all while keeping their guests and employees safe and secure.”
Of course, there are a plethora of other uses for this kind of technology, their number limited only by the amount of in-store challenges. Store locations can be remotely monitored and audited for merchandising purposes, to identify required marketing signage updates, and to simply ensure that the premises is safe and secure. Axis’ video technology can even be used to alert retail staff of the need to clean their restrooms based on the number of visitors who have gone in to use them. And the list goes on. Snook describes this range of applications and uses as “video technology beyond security”, a range that leverages analytics and the Internet of Things to enable retailers to gain a much deeper understanding concerning the effectiveness of their operations.
“It’s all about being creative and innovative to find other purposes for video within the store, to figure out how to expand those applications and uses, and to share the intelligence with all stakeholders,” Snook says. “In this way, armed with all of the data and business intelligence that our technology and analytics produces, the retailer then has the wherewithal to dramatically improve the experience for their customer. And at the end of the day, it’s what retail is all about: selling product and making shoppers happy.”
Impacts on Holiday Shopping
Snook goes into some detail regarding the emphasis that Axis places on the work it carries out on behalf of retailers, recognizing the industry as one of the company’s main areas of focus. He speaks proudly of the engineering that’s taken place behind the scenes for years in efforts to continue supporting retail operations, helping to contribute toward their successes. And he admits that with the 2020 holiday shopping season approaching amid a confirmed second wave of COVID, the need for Axis’ intelligent analytics will be immense and widespread.
“The holiday shopping season is obviously going to look considerably different this year as opposed to previous years,” he says. “And, because COVID has triggered a bit of a dip in the economy, we’re likely to see an increase in theft and robberies. Malls, in particular, will be faced with unique challenges, including concerns around lineups and parking lot space and securing that mass amount of people that are going to descend on their properties. It creates a host of dilemmas that retailers in malls and their landlords are going to need to overcome. And our focus as a solutions provider is to help strengthen retailers during this time, equipping them with the tools to support a successful holiday shopping season by helping them ensure that the right product offering is on the shelf, and assisting them in preventing disruptions to their customers and staff by making sure that the policies, protocols and safety measures they have in place are adhered to. Because of these needs, I think video technology, for all of its uses, will be leveraged to significant importance over the next few months”
Beyond the Pandemic
Snook’s prediction, considering all of the factors that will be at play through to the end of the year, seems like an adept one. And, although video technology and analytics have been in use for some time, he believes that 2020 and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be a bit of a watershed moment for these types of solutions as retailers reimagine what brick-and-mortar stores will look like beyond the holiday shopping season and pandemic restrictions. How will businesses operate differently post-COVID? How will the global health concerns that have been caused by the virus impact store design? How will the perceived need for office space and travel be impacted? These are only some of the questions that retailers will be asking themselves during the next 6 to 12 months. And Snook is confident that companies with solutions like Axis are well positioned to be able to help them navigate through them.
“We’re taking a three-dimensional view at how brick-and-mortar locations will operate in the future,” he says. “And through our solutions, we’ll be able to provide retailers with applications that can help lighten some of the financial burden that they feel associated to operational costs, increase their level of security onsite, and turn their cameras into smart technology to help enhance the customer experience. There are so many business benefits that will revolve around video technology, surveillance and artificial intelligence in the years to come. The combination of their uses is a real game-changer. And because of the obvious and tangible return on investment that can be achieved as a result of their use, we’re going to see an increase in the number of retailers leveraging these types of technologies – sustainable solutions – that will allow them to properly and effectively overcome the challenges they face today and prepare them for those that they’ll be faced with tomorrow and into the future.”