Digital queues to virtual trial rooms: Retail's answer to Covid-19

To solve the problem of queue management, Sait has set up a digital queuing system based on Quick Response (QR) codes
The day the Karnataka government allowed the resumption of the sale of liquor, Matheen Sait, owner of Evoma Hotel in Bengaluru, found unmanageable crowds outside. Reason: His hotel also has a bar attached to it.

 
“It was pretty scary. People were maintaining social distancing for a time, but when they got close to the door, they got so excited that all safety norms went for a toss,” says Sait.

To solve the problem of queue management, Sait has set up a digital queuing system based on Quick Response (QR) codes. “Now there is no frenzy at the door and hence no health risks for the buyers or the staff.”

 
With the lockdown restrictions being slowly eased in several parts of the country, and businesses coming to terms with the realities of the post-Covid world, many retail players are turning to technology to help them maintain the health precautions that the coronavirus pandemic has enforced.

Experts envisage major changes in the way retail operations will be conducted going forward. As Kumar Rajagopalan, chief executive officer, Retailers Association of India (RAI), points out, “Various aspects of legacy retail will completely change. Most traditional retail stores are getting into the omni-channel model to ensure sales online and offline. The winners will be those who can adopt new-age technologies and practices.”

Digital queues

Many retailers are opting for digital queueing systems to save their customers the pain of standing in long and tiring queues outside their premises. VirtuaQ, a Bengaluru and Singapore based startup, offers a digital queue management system where a store can time the entry of customers. You can scan the ‘Scan to Q’ QR code displayed at the entrance of the shop or obtain the link from the shop and get a ticket number. Then you can check your position in the queue online and time your visit to the store accordingly.

“VirtuaQ can be used in high-end supermarkets, small salons and kirana stores to avoid overcrowding and ensure social distancing,” says Zal Dastur, co-founder and COO of Singapore-based customer engagement firm, Lucep, which has come up with the VirtuaQ interface. “A shopkeeper can send the link of the digital queue either through a Whatsapp link or SMS.”

VirtuaQ is already working with Royal Enfield and Triumph Motors for their online businesses and has been deployed at various branches of Apollo Hospitals and Citi Bank. It is also in talks with Reliance Industries and Hindustan Unilever-owned Lakmé Salons to implement the technology at their stores. “We started the promotion drive in India just a week back, and have received 1,800 queries already,” says Dastur.

AI-powered cameras to ensure safety norms

Technology companies are also coming out with various innovations to ensure that protocols like the wearing of masks and social distancing are followed in retail spaces. Delhi-based Hero Electronix has launched an artificial intelligence (AI)-based feature in its indoor cameras to detect and alert the store manager if anyone is not wearing a mask or flouting social distancing norms.

The camera provides a video or image of the violation and its in-built speakers can sound a warning message to anyone not complying with the norms. The “Covid Guard’’ feature is being marketed under the company’s smart electronic brand, Qubo.

To make the cameras smarter, they have also been equipped with image analytics and facial recognition software. “We created and trained the cameras through our own neural networks and we have an accuracy of 95 per cent,” says Anup Cheruvathoor, chief technology officer (consumer, Internet Of Things) at Hero Electronix. “Most China-based solutions work only up to a maximum distance of one metre, but our cameras work up to a distance of 10 metres.”

Adds Nikhil Rajpal, CEO of the Hero Group-backed firm, “For example, in cloud kitchens or restaurant kitchens, our cameras can detect or call out if an employee is not wearing a mask. This can also be streamed to customers if needed.”

Zenatix, an IoT firm of the Hero Group, which is already working with 30-40 retail brands such as Dominos Pizza and Spencer’s Retail at the enterprise level, plans to install the customised Covid Guard system and other Qubo products at their retail outlets.

Virual trial rooms

Technology is also coming to the aid of brick-and-mortar stores that are in danger of losing their traditional ‘touch-and-feel’ advantage in the post-Covid world. 

According to Rajagopalan of RAI, an area where retailers may adopt technology in a big way is fashion apparel. Since customers may be reluctant to try out clothes for fear of catching the virus, virtual trial rooms and interactive “magic mirrors” could become the order of the day.

Magic mirrors are augmented reality-powered mirrors, wherein buyers can try out clothes. The devices are responsive to hand gestures and the sensors help garments to get resized automatically to fit the customer.

“The enquires have shot up by 20-30 per cent. We are working with our existing retailers to take this feature to their online verticals and make it a part of their omni-channel strategy,” says Mahendra Vellingiri, founder of the Coimbatore-based startup Coitor IT Tech, which provides virtual dressing room solutions. According to a Boston Consulting Group-RAI report released this February, India’s retail market is expected to grow at a 9-11 per cent compounded annualised growth rate and will touch Rs 1.1-1.3 trillion by 2025 from the current Rs  0.7 trillion levels.


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