As retail and F&B business owners hoped the worst is over, Singapore experienced another wave of Covid-19 infections and implementation of Phase Two (Heightened Alert) measures. Most businesses would have been prepared to deal with the reinstatement of strict regulations, but retail and F&B businesses still took the brunt of diminished customer footfall.
Looking back at the impact of last year’s emergency measures for context, the Ministry of Trade and Industry reported that retail and F&B sales have fallen by 9.6% and 16.4% year-on-year respectively in February 2020. It then worsened, registering declines of 14.1% and 23.6% in March 2020 because of tightened measures.
With increasing uncertainties that lie ahead, what are some of the key learnings for the industry as we chart the course for the future? Are technology investments focused on outlasting Covid-19 truly enough to ensure survivability in a post-covid Singapore?
What new safety guidelines mean
There is no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted businesses and accelerated digitalisation. It is impossible to guarantee we will get back to normal, and businesses’ agility will continue to be tested as they respond to tightening and loosening of safety measures at a moment’s notice. The ability to adapt fast will ensure continued employee and customer safety as well as help navigate strategic decisions that will capitalise on current measures to ensure business continuity.
Thankfully, during this global crisis, technology has given us the first line of defence when it comes to containment and has allowed us to better control and monitor the spread of Covid-19. Retail and F&B businesses were able to respond quickly to changing measures by tapping on technologies, such as video. From thermal imaging capabilities to video analytics, these technologies have helped with crowd management and compliance to safe-distancing measures, ensuring they can resume operations safely.
These advancements in technology are unique to our time and have provided us with an edge that our ancestors did not have. But as technology evolves, mindset changes must keep pace to make the best use of it. Businesses need agility when approaching technology, not only to overcome the adverse effects of Covid-19 but also ensure readiness for changes and disruption that is to come.
Today, technology is becoming increasingly collaborative, with video solutions used by many MedTech companies to bring telehealth to the masses being one of the examples.
Innovation is increasingly becoming a collective process. As technologies cross traditional streams, these add on to existing capabilities, and ultimately leads to greater possibilities. I see open collaboration as the next stage of technological evolution – This is especially true for the video industry.
How technology is helping retail and F&B improve
Over the past couple of years, we have been seeing businesses using such solutions not just as a safeguard, but also to improve on efficiencies. Many retail and F&B businesses have recently tapped on video cameras with analytics to detect if diners and shoppers are maintaining proper social distance. This has eased the burden on existing staff and saved on costs for the deployment of extra manpower to patrol the premises.
But some of these businesses have taken collaborative technologies a step further. DiGEiZ, a French analytics company, has patented a technology targeted at shopping centres and retail decision-makers that are struggling to develop new rent strategies in the post-Covid, digitalised world. Increasingly, malls are relying on footfall data, rather than shops’ revenue to establish rent rates given that a large proportion of customers are shopping online these days.
With AI-powered video technology, shopping mall decision-makers, can analyse in real-time how many people visit selected stores and analyse the complete customer mall journey. This data helps executives evaluate fair rent rates based on footfall and as a result, build better relationships with retailers. And all of this in compliance with data privacy regulations thanks to masking technology that “hides” the image of customers.
In Australia, for example, drive-through cafes and restaurants have connected their Point-of-Sale (POS) system to a network of video cameras and are using licence plate recognition (LPR) technology to recognise cars entering the carpark. This integration has helped restaurants predict orders from regular customers who have provided their consent to share the data and include their licence information in the restaurant’s database.
In doing so, the restaurant can then start preparing their meals even before customers arrive at the counters, offering a more efficient and personalised drive-through experience that also resolves traffic congestion at pick-up points during peak hours. This was especially helpful when the country went into its first lockdown on 16 March 2020, and F&B businesses had to rely heavily on self-pickups and deliveries.
These are but two examples of how open and collaborative technologies can help businesses go beyond the baseline of security.
Get ready for the post ‘New Normal’
With the global situation changing daily, preparing for the ‘New Normal’ is not going to cut it anymore. Instead, businesses need to constantly prepare for the ‘New Next’.
While technologies that enable contact tracking, temperature detection and crowd management have been fundamental in keeping the infection at bay, it is no longer adequate for business leaders to focus on investments that make them Covid-proof.
The world and our business environment are in constant flux and if there is one thing that I have learned over the past year and a half, it is the importance of being agile and adaptable. We need to look beyond expedient investments to just get by, and instead focus on smart and flexible business infrastructure that can adapt to the coming storms and the winds of change.
Benjamin Low is Vice President, Asia Pacific at Milestone Systems