As retailers prepare for a post-COVID future, experts say customers will want a blend of in-person service and the online shopping options they’ve become used to during the pandemic.

“I think the overall message is that technology is great, I think it needed to happen, but balance is still going to be key – maintaining that authentic person-to-person experience in addition to layering on technology,” said Sandy Silva, Senior Client Sales Director for mobile retail platform Tulip.

“I think the future is trying to figure out that mix,” added Lisa Keeping, Vice-Dean of the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Silva and Keeping were among nearly 30 speakers and 163 attendees at a virtual Future of Retail Summit held earlier today, an event organized by Communitech and partners Interac, Sonova and Cineplex Digital Media. 

The Future of Retail is one of several collaborations led by Communitech to explore specific areas of industry and business and where they should be headed in future. The intent is to bring corporate, academic and community partners together to share and amplify their insights and innovation efforts.

“Collaboration is in our DNA at Communitech,” said Joel Semeniuk, the tech organization’s Vice-President of Growth and Innovation. “In times of great uncertainty and change, it's our ability to collaborate and work together that allows us to navigate that change with greater confidence. And, if anything, COVID has reminded us how important it is to collaborate with one another.”

Peter Maoloni, Vice-President of Products and Services for online-payments manager Interac, said the pandemic has hit retailers much harder than other sectors.

Fewer than 50 per cent of Canadian retailers have seen their revenues return to pre-pandemic levels, he said.

On the positive side, many retailers upped their digital game or added virtual shopping options for the first time.

“We've seen an explosion on our digital platforms,” said Maoloni, adding that Interac’s in-app payment platform has grown by more than 300 per cent over the course of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 experience has accelerated the adoption of digital shopping, services and payments – trends that will likely continue even after the fears and restrictions begin to ease, he said.

“We've seen consumer choice as one of the key differentiators that will take us forward in probably a new growth trajectory, as well as a new acceptance trajectory,” he said, adding that consumers have a strong preference for debit.

The Lazaridis School’s Lisa Keeping said she was pleasantly surprised by how quickly smaller retailers adapted to the uptake of digital shopping, especially to social media commerce through platforms like Instagram and Facebook. E-commerce generates data that can be analysed to help retailers better meet customer needs, she said.

“I really noticed that a lot of people who never imagined themselves utilizing some of these technologies – both on the consumer end and on the retailer end – dove in,” Keeping said. “I see so many small retailers starting to talk about the importance of analytics, and looking at them ongoing, and adapting what they're doing for their customers.”

The increase in online commerce raises a data-accessibility issue, said Jeevan Vivegananthan, Vice-President of Technology and Innovation for Cineplex Digital Media.

“There is an accessibility issue here, especially in small and mid-size businesses,” he said, suggesting that more needs to be done to make sure that publicly available data “becomes accessible for the mom-and-pop shops and not just the big-box-centre retailer.”

“The technology is there,” he added. “We just need to make it accessible.”

Another observation was the rise in “shop local” movements.

“We've seen, very distinctly, Canadians wanting to support locally,” said Interac’s Peter Maoloni. “That trend becomes more and more significant when you start looking at the statistics behind it – people will take a hit on, potentially, the delivery of something or even the price if they have the option to shop locally.”

David Arbuthnot, Director of Wawanesa Insurance’s Innovation Outpost in the Communitech Hub, said the 125-year-old insurance company is working on the premise that buying its products is all about trusted relationships.

“The insurance-buying experience is really about looking for a trusted advisor to guide you through that experience,” he said. “It’s not about an either-or world; it’s not about digitally selling insurance or visiting your insurance broker in person. It’s about choosing the right channel at the right time and having the right blend of experiences.”

Similarly, hearing-device maker Sonova has been “reimagining” its customer buying experience – trying to reduce the stigma associated with hearing loss, address demographic service preferences and better understand the needs and experiences of those who buy its products.

“This is a journey that needs to be driven by the consumer – very simply, a world-class, seamless, omni-channel play,” said Michael Clewley, Director of the Sonova Innovation Lab.

Working with the Future of Retail collaborative, Sonova issued a public industry challenge that asked innovators from a range of backgrounds to help the company improve its customer journey.

“The industry challenge was, in many ways, an attempt to understand what is happening in a broader context, along with other pieces that could be applicable, in terms of how retailers build trusted relationships with their consumers,” Clewley said. “Engaging with our fellow partners in the collaborative, and seeing how the innovation ecosystem responded to our industry challenge, was an opportunity to see what else is out there, to think differently, and think innovatively about how we can apply things to our own distribution network.”

Sonova shortlisted five proposals. From these, it has chosen two to run as pilot projects.

Like Sonova, Cineplex Digital Media has found the collaborative format of the Future of  Retail initiative to be a refreshing and helpful approach to innovation.

“Collaboration really is more than the sum of its parts,” said Vivegananthan, who agreed that the future of retail will be a blend of in-person and virtual service.

“It is clear to us that the bricks and mortar and the physical retail world is still very much a part of the shopping experience,” he said. “That need for social connection is still there and I think not having had it through COVID has really highlighted how much that’s still (an important part) of the experience.”

Just look at the fact that “people still want to go to movies,” he said.