Top Brick and Mortar Retail Technologies in 2021: Insights From 20 Experts [2021]

Our Future of Brick and Mortar Retail Series featured interviews with over 35 retailers, experts, and thought leaders who told us about the trends shaping the future of brick and mortar.

As a look into the series, here are some of our favorite responses:

What technologies will have the biggest impact on brick and mortar retail in 2021?

Neil Saunders, Managing Director of Retail at GlobalData

"Automation will be important for reducing costs, although a lot of that may be behind the scenes in fulfilment rather than on the shop floor. Systems that monitor customer flow and traffic will also be vital as retailers increasingly want to assess how customers are shopping their stores so that they can optimize things like layout and configuration. Staff empowerment is another area of focus, with more staff being armed with tablets and devices that enable them to pull up customer information to assist shoppers or quickly check people out if they want to pay."

Imogen Wethered, CEO and founder of Qudini

"Appointment booking software: This technology enables customers to book appointments to visit stores or to receive service. This helps drive sales and loyalty by enabling customers to use any channel to seamlessly schedule appointments for tailored virtual or in-person services."

Virtual queuing software: Provides customers with the ability to avoid waiting in physical queues by joining a virtual queue instead. Consumers can do this on their phones via SMS and QR code or through a kiosk or member of staff and receive real-time updates about their position in the queue. This technology ensures social distancing and a great customer experience.

Curbside click and collect software: The technology powering retailer’s click and collect services will play a crucial role in the future of brick and mortar retail. Not only has this helped power stores during the lockdown, it is building stronger customer relationships and increasing brand awareness.

Shep Hyken, NYT Best Selling Business Author 

"Cashless checkout"

Cashless technologies enhance health, safety, and convenience. This makes them an essential technology.

Next-gen online systems

Brick and mortar stores will need to update their online shopping experiences to allow consumers to evaluate merchandise and inventory online before going to the physical store to purchase. Some will also shift to offer direct online purchasing.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)

Increased access to virtual and augmented reality technologies means people can shop, try on, and evaluate products digitally in a more realistic way than ever. They can then go into the store and know exactly what they want after ensuring that the items are in stock.

John Federman, CEO of JRNI

"With consumers using a mixture of traditional online and in-store shopping, retailers will need to provide technologies that enable them to tailor the in-person shopping experience to their exact needs. In this new hybrid-shopping reality, consumers are seeking out truly optimized, agile, safe and frictionless services that will enable them to engage on their terms."

To help support this, technologies like appointment scheduling platforms and capacity management will have a large impact in the coming year. In fact, 57% of consumers in our survey said that post-COVID-19, they are far more likely to schedule an appointment to visit a store than they were prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also, the dramatic surge in digital shopping means brick and mortar retailers need to be prepared for a continued uptick in demand for omnichannel solutions, such as click-and-collect and curbside pickup.

Eric Grindley, CEO and founder of Esquire Advertising

"The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the retail industry, forcing businesses to drastically change their approach to enticing customers into stores. With profit margins as slim as ever, and consumers increasingly reluctant to shop around, retailers will rely on cost-effective hyper-targeting advertising technologies like geoframing and real-time market analysis to balance their budgets and grow customer numbers at the same time."

Big data platforms and AI-driven analytics will also continue to see wider implementation as these tools allow retailers to effectively anticipate customer demands and provide them with highly personalized shopping experiences, which will be the name of the game through 2021.

Gwen Morrison, Partner, Candezent Advisory

"AR and VR will continue to be developed. They meet different objectives including delivering an endless aisle, where departments can be presented with less physical space. They also help deliver virtual try-ons combining digital apps and augmented reality, to allow consumers to try out more items and avoid small space dressing rooms and visualize products in their homes."

Voice is in an exciting stage of development and will continue to grow. With more devices offering personal assistants, the possibilities are endless. Shoppers can speak twice as fast as they can key in product search, and their intent is more defined. The accuracy of matching products through voice search will encourage retailers to develop their own voices to better connect with shoppers. The combination of voice and visual is an exciting space. Voice commands that result in a visual display of product options will deliver a more human experience through technology.

Digital payments will continue to grow. Paying restaurant bills through apps reduces contact with staff and streamlines service steps.

AI was a disappointment in 2020 because the year was not predictable. Talent is needed to uncover actionable insights from data, as the data itself does not necessarily predict the future. For me, bringing technologies together to create seamless shopping experiences is more exciting than the technologies themselves. With visual recognition, hyper-local geo-fencing, purchase history, and the voice/ visual search we have the foundation for meeting the shopper in any situation.

Anna Brettle, Founder of Stellar

"Video is one of the most powerful tools available to retailers today as it delivers an immersive and lifelike shopping experience from the comfort of someone’s home. Video can bring a product to life on screen in a way that can’t be captured in a collection of high-quality images. We’ve been working with our retail clients on providing personalised retail experiences through the use of video calls from a product expert. These video calls allow a direct video into a store and allow the consumer to receive a similar experience they’d receive in-store, from the comfort of their home."

Samsung’s experience store based in London is a great example that shows how physical stores are progressing in a new retail environment offering customers more than just a shopping experience, they’re offering their consumers a brand experience.

Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends

"Livestreaming will continue to be a big growth area. Some new stores have opened with livestreaming areas – adding theatre and promoting the brand’s online engagement." 

More brands will better connect digital and physical. Hero is a fantastic service that connects customers browsing online with in-store staff. Many brands utilised it during the pandemic, and we expect many more to sign up in 2021, as it has great ROI. It also shows retailers that stores can serve customers in different ways – it can become a showroom and service space for online customers.

We may see technologies like these impact staff hiring and training. If employees need to communicate and broadcast over video and digital, retailers will look for people with good digital and speaking skills. A number of brands, including Sephora, Dunkin’ and Anta Sports, have appointed approved brand ambassadors who post content to TikTok and other platforms.

Joshua Williams, Founding President of Fashion Consort

"I think any technologies that facilitate the in-store shopping experience, will be front and center in 2021. These technologies can be “hidden” in some cases, such as air filtration systems, cleaning technologies, etc, or “seen” such as contactless payment, automated no-touch doors, sinks, toilets, etc. “Tech for tech’s sake” will become less important as customers going to the store will want a truly physical experience."

Additionally, I think we see an increase in smart speaker technologies that bridge home, commute, office and store.

Tangentially, I think VR shopping technologies will continue to accelerate as retailers try to bring in-store experience into the homes of shoppers.

Sarah Assous, CMO of Zoovu  

"The acceleration of digitally connected stores will have an enormous impact on brick and mortar retail. This will be demonstrated in two significant ways: first, mobile pay-as-you-shop experiences – British retailer Marks & Spencers (M&S) has integrated a mobile pay-as-you-shop functionality and self-service checkouts into their app amid social distancing. Shoppers scan items as they meander the store and pay via the app as they leave, the store management is also able to track the number of shoppers inside the store reducing the need for constant moderating of foot traffic. The second technology that will drive impact on brick and mortar retail will be providing in-store kiosks with digital configurators that can be used by shoppers who are looking for complex or highly-customizable products in-real time. An example of this would be a home appliance store using kiosks to help customers configure a new kitchen set-up or bathroom with a 3D digital configurator. Letting sales representatives support shoppers later in their purchase decision while giving the shopper more ownership of the experience while adhering to social distance measures."

Carol Spieckerman, President of Spieckerman Retail 

"Contactless payment solutions will continue to ramp up as shoppers return to stores with the expectation of having safe self-serve options. “Buy-now-pay-later” options, like Afterpay, Klarna, and ZipPay, will replace traditional layaway and become more common across multiple categories."

Augmented and virtual reality will accelerate online as retailers seek to give shoppers reasons to continue buying touch-and-feel categories like furniture online. In brick and mortar, these technologies will accelerate self-service media, giving shoppers the ability to run simulations and product placement scenarios while in stores.

Shoppable media will proliferate and the stage is being set now with Hulu’s QR code capabilities and Walmart’s just-announced Shop-Along holiday beta with TikTok.

Josh Brooks, Head of Marketing of OnBuy.com 

"Advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, will have a huge impact on brick and mortar retailers in 2021."

Not only can they be used to enhance product displays and drive traffic to a company’s website, but they can also encourage customers back to the physical store bridging multiple sales channels and catching the shopper at the right time when they are ready to make a purchase no matter if the conversion occurs in the physical shop or online. Using virtual reality, retailers can create a compelling digital experience to add tangible value to in-store shopping, which can dramatically increase footfall to their store.

Damon Routzhan, Founder and CEO of Concrete Candles 

"AR (Augmented Technology) and VR (Virtual Reality): In my perspective, AR and VR will have the biggest impact on brick and mortar retail in 2021. Consumers really look up to them to assist them in their purchases and product choices. They’ve become an essential part of retailer’s online store experience."

AR is a great way to showcase your products to consumers and give them a life-like experience of what the actual product and its usability would look like. Brands such as IKEA, and Home Depot are already making use of this feature, and other smaller retailers are getting into the same field of interest through platforms such as Shopify; with their Shopify AR feature.

Staci Pearlman, Co-founder of elfin los angeles

"Contactless shopping – customers don’t want to exchange cash or even pull out a credit card anymore. Payment solutions such as venmo & apple pay will become even more normalized in 2021."

Omnichannel capabilities – solutions to aggregate inventory will be more important than ever, customers will want to know that what is available online, is also in-store and vise versa.

Easy appointment booking solutions – that allow customers to easily book appointments so they know they can plan their shopping visits easier, think open table for retail stores.

BOPIS and curbside with an easy, seamless experience – safety continues to be the customer’s number 1 concern, and curbside makes the ability to shop and pick up orders in real-time even easier. Customers want the ease of online shopping with the convenience of receiving their orders same-day.

Joanne Heyob, SVP of Operations Strategy & Design at WD Partners

"Contactless and frictionless checkout will continue in a bigger way. Consumers we have surveyed at WD partners have said they want to buy online and not only pickup in store, but they would rather just pull up and have someone put their purchase in their trunk. We will see robotics used in a whole different way—from automated delivery vehicles to drone delivery orders right to your doorstep. This will be a huge year for technology enhancements for retailers."

Automation will also be a big tech trend since more stores are fulfilling online orders. Retailers will need to look at their portfolio strategy and determine where they need to invest in automation or dark stores and where they need to improve associates’ ability to pick orders efficiently by improving their overall inventory visibility.

Rachel LaConti, Senior Manager of Location Partnerships, Happy Returns 

"Touch-free experiences became important to both shoppers and store associates during the pandemic, causing a rise in the usage of things like digital wallets."

Happy Returns transitioned to a completely contact-free in-person return process this year, through the use of QR codes. Now, shoppers hold up their phones so the Returnista can scan the code and pull up their information. They then bag their items themselves and place them in a cardboard-free reusable tote for bulk shipping.  

Werner Jorgensen, Marketing & Sales expert at Tooleto

"Augmented Reality is expected to bring the closest experience to physical shopping through technology. To bridge the physical gap between the product and the consumer before shopping, Augmented Reality will play a vital role."

The AR experience will not be limited to brand shopping, instead implemented very commonly, even with small businesses. Shopify launched Shopify AR last year, an easy-to-use toolkit for businesses to create their own AR experiences to showcase their products to customers.

Debbie Hauss, Executive Director of Content, Retail TouchPoints 

"The technologies that will be front-and-center in brick-and-mortar retail will be those that best respond to consumer needs around returning to the store. A few I would watch include:"

  • Autonomous store technology, allowing shoppers the least amount of touch in-store.

  • Contactless payment, with new features including the ability for shoppers to buy now and pay later.

  • Interactive digital signage, offering personalized product suggestions.

  • Smart fitting rooms, allowing shoppers to more safely try on items, request different sizes and complete purchases.

Kristen Moore, CMO of inVia Robotics

"Fulfillment optimization software will be a game changer in customer satisfaction."

Retailers have traditionally focused on improving the customer-facing experience to grow sales. That’s now catching up to them on the back end. An increase in sales puts pressure on fulfillment operations, and it’s starting to burst at the seams.

Retailers are having to create more efficient processes to make better use of resources. Software has emerged that can help identify efficiencies and create operation plans that maximize the use of labor and processes. That ultimately creates a seamless experience for consumers when their orders are delivered and helps with customer retention.

Ray Ko, Senior E-commerce Manager at ShopPOPDisplays

"Technologies that significantly improve the physical shopping experience will make the greatest impact. Great examples are technology platforms to accept any and all returns at brick and mortar stores—which boost traffic—as well as quick, contact-less, self-driving or autonomous delivery."

Also, the use of QR-codes to align the mobile commerce experience with the brick and mortar environment will grow—promoting instant, contact-less shopping interactions. Huge advances in the payments space will also enable more flexibility at check-out, like crypto-payments and “buy now, pay later” options. Some retailers will even eliminate the cashier altogether so that shoppers can pay and leave by simply swiping their mobile phone.