In April, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the global economy would shrink by 3% in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest contraction since the global financial crisis of 2009 (in which the economy, comparatively, only shrunk by 0.1%). To stay afloat during the crisis, companies have needed to make significant changes to the way they operate. As conducting business in person is no longer an option, many companies have turned to innovative uses of technology to not only survive but thrive in the pandemic environment and beyond.
Retail is one of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, with companies having to adjust quickly to protect customer and employee health. With this in mind, grocery stores across the world are turning to technology to provide a safer shopping experience. One example of these initiatives is a partnership between X5 Retail Group, a top Russian food retailer, and the Russian tech giant Yandex, who have developed a program to help customers stay safe as they shop at the X5 supermarket chain Perekrestok. The program uses video analytics to monitor checkout queues at individual Perekrestok stores and shares this information with shoppers, who can then choose the best time to visit the store. Artificial intelligence developed by Yandex determines if there is “no queue,” a “moderate queue,” or a “large queue” and estimates the average wait time per customer. Customers have access to this information through Yandex Maps, helping them make a more informed decision about when to go shopping in order to maintain social distancing.
The pandemic has also led to the growth of contactless delivery options, which allow consumers to receive their orders without the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Whole Foods Market, an American supermarket chain and a subsidiary of Amazon, has expanded its online ordering program during the crisis. Customers can select and pay for their groceries online, after which their order will be filled in the store by an employee wearing a mask and gloves. The customer waits outside the store until the groceries are placed directly in the boot of their car.
Russian e-commerce giant Ozon found itself in a good position as contactless delivery grew in popularity. The company had launched a pilot program in July 2019 that delivered packages directly to customers’ doors, a service that was the first of its kind in Russia. As people across the country went into quarantine, the demand for contactless package delivery skyrocketed. Ozon has seen a 60% increase in contactless door deliveries since the fourth quarter of 2019 and they accounted for 80% of all Ozon deliveries by the spring of 2020. The program gives customers access to items they need in a safe manner.
Ozon has also adopted a contactless payment system for the large number of Russian shoppers who prefer to pay for an order only upon delivery. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Ozon introduced a safe and convenient payment method that relieves customers of the need to prepay online when placing an essential order. Customers simply attach a bank card to their Ozon account and select the option to “auto-deduct at delivery” when placing their order. The payment isn’t deducted from the customer’s card until the courier has actually placed the package on their doorstep.
Retail companies are also responding to skyrocketing demand for online grocery orders as shoppers increasingly move online to purchase their food. Perekrestok, the Russian supermarket chain, has launched a mobile express delivery app that is available to Moscow residents. Customers can place grocery orders from their phones, and employees at their closest Perekrestok location will fill the order in-store and deliver it directly to the customers’ door in under an hour. Thanks to this program, customers who cannot risk a shopping trip can still get the essentials they need. In the United States, Walmart – which holds the largest share of the U.S. grocery market – has rolled out its own two-hour express delivery service amid a surge in digital demand.
However, not all enterprises can swiftly move online, and this is particularly true of heavy industry. Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works (MMK Group) is one of the world’s leading producers of steel. Employees cannot manufacture steel from home and need to share an enclosed space for normal operations to continue. Technology was once again key in ensuring business continuity while promoting employee safety. MMK Group has installed thermal imaging cameras for use across all of its divisions, which check employee temperatures for signs of fever, a common symptom of COVID-19. When MMK Group can identify a potential case of COVID-19 early, the company can prevent the virus from spreading throughout its facilities.
Like MMK Group, many companies across the world are turning to new technology as they emerge from lockdown amid COVID-19. General Motors, the U.S. vehicle manufacturer, has installed thermal cameras in its warehouses to remotely monitor employees’ temperatures. Elsewhere, fast food giant McDonald’s has purchased no-contact infrared thermometers for each of its14,000 U.S. locations. Technology is playing an increasingly important role in protecting both employees and customers as economic activity resumes.
Even born-digital enterprises have ramped up their technological offering to better meet consumer needs during the pandemic. Moscow-based Tinkoff Group, an online bank and provider of financial and lifestyle services, began onboarding new customers for Tinkoff Investments, its brokerage platform for retail investors, without the previously mandatory face-to-face meetings. People embraced trading securities from home, as the platform saw record inflows of 23 billion rubles in April. In the first three months of the year, Tinkoff Investments opened more than 600,000 brokerage accounts, bringing the total number of accounts to 2 million. Meanwhile, the Tinkoff Education program moved entirely online and made some of its courses available to the public.
While the pandemic has provided a unique challenge to businesses, it has also provided an opportunity for innovation that will likely carry well into the post-coronavirus environment. The companies that have adapted most effectively to the COVID-19 crisis will be well placed to meet customers’ needs when restrictions are lifted and the world starts a slow return to normality.