The on demand retail economy is in full bloom. Companies from AirBnB, Washio, Favor, Shortcut to Lyft are all offering consumers a new retailing experience when it comes to services or procuring goods. These new business models are also pushing the edges of the retailing envelope – changing how retailers look at servicing the end customer. One shift that is taking place as well is how the physical stores are being leveraged. eCommerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba began to drive the conversation around why have stores at all? With large logistic networks, strategically placed distribution centers and savvy order capture systems the need for physical stores for customers to come and look at products and then purchase were a relic of the past. Not so fast. Stores are making a come back. As they should. The reality remains, that as a percentage of all retail, the dollars spent via online are still dwarfed by those spent in stores. For every $11 spent in retail, more than $10 of that sum is transacted within a physical store. However retailers are facing the challenge of how to leverage the physical stores in new ways.
An example of this is the services Instacart is offering. The basic premise for the service is to offer consumers the flexibility of having someone else do their grocery shopping and having the items delivered within a finite time. Instacart has partnerships with the likes of Whole Foods, Safeway and Costco. So the grocery store is where the inventory is being held, no carrying costs for Instacart. However, Instacart relies on their pickers as well as their mobile devices to ensure that orders are properly received and most importantly properly picked and packed. This is where problems arise for such a service. The service is similar to a warehouse pick and pack operation, but a warehouse is staffed by professional warehouse employees and is…well a warehouse! Whole Foods is not configured like your local distribution center. So how can you ensure the order is properly handled? This is where the promise of IoT comes into play.
While these grocers are not going to become fully IoT operational overnight – having sensors throughout store infrastructure (shelves, aisles, freezers, carts etc), on certain inventory as well as on other essential assets – the ground work is beginning, in large part driven by the services provided by Instacart. Instacart is really similar to a store within a store – or personal shoppers within stores. And with that they also need their own systems in place to manage their business. While they can lean on the mobile assets their pickers carry, they require a more robust and industrial strength solution. This is where they are working with Zebra Technologies to place printers within certain Whole Foods. Printers? You may look at this as a non-digital play, but on the contrary this is a perfect example of how IoT can start being infused into retail.
Retailers do not need to invest in snazzy new beacons, cameras, sensors, smart shelves or RFID but rather can look at items such as label printers as a foray into IoT. Zebra printers are being rolled out into Whole Foods where they are tied to the Zatar IoT platform. The Zatar platform is able to tie these printers into a greater IoT platform. Currently the system is handling the order processing for the pick and pack of groceries. Through simple printing and labeling, it is targeting a more efficient and proper order.
This is addressing a current need for the grocer and Instacart – making sure orders are error free. But think about how this could evolve. The printer is but one item that is becoming smarter. Instacart is able to place this smart, IoT enabled device, in the property of another entity and run their business within someone else’s store. As the printer becomes “smarter” for example adding camera technology, this innocuous looking device now becomes part of an IoT infrastructure within a grocer’s store. The platform that it is tied can now take on new IoT enabled devices – suddenly the network effect takes off.
The long-term impact of relationships between the likes of Instacart and Zebra is in the ability of companies like Zebra to begin to plant the seeds for connectivity, tied back to their platform, within these physical locations. The promise of IoT will not happen overnight, but will start on the foundation created by the infusion of connecting humble machines such as printers into a greater IoT network.