Many commentators predicted that the advent of online shopping would spell the demise of the bricks-and-mortar store.
However, physical shops are still very much alive, though the rise of e-commerce has forced them to re-think their approach.
Over the next few years, the role of the retail store is likely to be redefined, improving the way they work through the application of new technologies.
Between the growth of online shopping, the appearance of futuristic stores without sales assistants, such as Amazon Go, and the introduction of robots, it’s clear that the retail business is in a radical transition phase right now. And over the next few years there is little doubt that the shop as we know it is set to undergo a profound transformation. However, if you want to predict what’s coming in the future it’s often useful to take a look into the past.
The retail business has seen three major innovations in recent years. The expansion of the drive-through phenomenon, which originated with fast food outlets in the United States some 50 years ago, to grocery stores, saw the foundation in France over a decade ago of the pioneering Chronodrive, which enables customers to order online and then drive to the store to have their groceries packed in the car boot while they remain at the wheel. Meanwhile back in the US, Amazon set up two Amazon Fresh Pickup grocery outlets this year, with retail giant Walmart following suit in Oklahoma City. The second phenomenon has been the come-back, in opposition to the hypermarkets and ‘shopping malls’, staged by local shops where customers can make their purchases without having to take their car along and then search between endless rows of shelves. The third revolution has been the rise of online shopping, which began in the apparel and electric appliances segments but has since spread to groceries and fast-moving consumer products, as illustrated by the Amazon Fresh concept.
Re-thinking the role of the bricks-and-mortar store
Matthieu Jolly, Service & Innovation Manager at the Echangeur, an Innovation meeting-point run by BNP Paribas Personal Finance, underlines that this triple revolution has been driven by the retailers’ desire to adapt to the changing expectations of their customers, notably for greater efficiency. “The customer wants to save time,” he points out, adding: “However, this new reality raises a fundamental question: if nowadays the customer wants to spend as little time as possible inside shops, what are the shops going to do about it?” Does that mean they’ll simply disappear? Jolly argues instead that sales outlets will have to introduce new formats and take an approach that goes beyond the purely utilitarian, with three main areas for improvement. “The first is about turning the shop into a venue for new experiences, a place where you can be amazed, where you can have a good time,” he says. This might well mean giving customers greater freedom. For instance, the Nike store in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York City offers customers the chance to try out its gear in realistic situations, shooting a few basketball hoops or going into a full sprint. Similarly, US store Pitch, which specialises in luxury furniture and appliances, everything in the shop can be tested out – for example taking a shower or drying your hair on the premises.
Another option involves using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. Given that the cost of these technologies is still rather high for the general public, brands will be able to vaunt their dramatic effect, offering customers a truly immersive experience. For instance, during a promotional campaign in Autumn 2015, The North Face store in Seoul, South Korea rolled out an initiative whereby it invited customers to sit on a dog sled, put on an Oculus Rift headset and experience for a few moments the life of a ‘musher’, being pulled through a snowy landscape by huskies. In the meantime, a sales assistant attached real live huskies to the sled, and when the customer took off the headset the dogs took off on a real race through the store. Similarly, in November 2016, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba invited its customers to put on a VR headset and be teleported to Macy’s store in New York. This kind of dramatic spectacle gives stores a ‘raison d’être’, creating a meeting-point where you can have new, fun experiences. “We’re moving from a transactional mode to an approach based on experiences,” explains Nicolas Diacono, Digital Project Manager at the BNP Paribas Personal Finance Echangeur.
A place for interaction and socialising
The second area for improvement actually goes in the opposite direction, concentrating on what is unique about shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store – i.e. the material aspect, the customer’s ability to see and touch. “A store is also a place where you go to get hands-on contact with a product, to feel how it works,” Jolly underlines. He does not think that the general public has yet been entirely won over by e-commerce. Retail stores therefore still have a strong hand to play if they focus on their specific features. The recently-announced partnership between US startup Casper and nationwide discount retailer Target is a telling move. The hypermarket chain has invested $75 million in Casper, a high-end, exclusively online, direct-to-consumer mattress business. As a result of Target’s financial injection, Casper’s mattresses can now also be bought at Target hypermarkets. Despite enjoying fast growth, Casper has struggled to attract buyers beyond a rather select circle of people who are happy to buy expensive items online without first trying them out. Partnering with Target opens the door to a wider potential clientele, while Target benefits from having attractive products at its premises. Customers like to try them out in-store, and they now have a reason to go to the Target store to do so. Similarly, French home appliance and multi-media store Boulanger is setting up areas within its stores where customers can try out all its products.
The third area for development is turning the store into a place for interaction and socialising. “Many people go shopping as a way of getting out of the house. Shopping malls in the United States are now widely used as a place where young people can meet up,” points out Matthieu Jolly. Amazon showed that it has fully understood this phenomenon when it acquired natural and organic food company Whole Foods Market, a brand known for its community feel and its pleasant stores where people enjoy walking around, up and down the aisles.
“However, making customers feel welcome isn’t enough, you also have to teach them something", argues Jolly. Carrefour’s store in Villiers en Bière, in the Greater Paris region, now offers classes in cooking, wine-making and make-up.
Meanwhile French postal service La Poste provides premises for would-be drivers to take the written part of their driving test, and other companies are setting up co-working facilities.
The Virgin Megastore in London has combined these three trends. Customers are hailed in the street by a hologram of Richard Branson, and then welcomed inside the stores by hostesses. They can then go downstairs where they’ll find a bar, a café, a piano, a relaxing space with armchairs, TV screens, and even a real-life Virgin Atlantic business premium cabin where they can watch the sky go by through the porthole windows. Children can play on the consoles at the video games space. You can even rent part of the premises for events, and every Friday evening a film is screened.
More efficient, better-managed stores
The store of the future will therefore play a different role from the one we know today and will moreover provide customers with a more efficient shopping experience. In the medium term, there will no doubt be many AR-based experiences on offer. Using a future version of Google Glass or the Oculus headset, tomorrow’s consumers will be able to navigate around the supermarket aisles and see the products they are interested in highlighted in front of them. These might be food items corresponding to a diet – vegetarian, gluten-free, stone-age diet, and so on – or the products they need for a cooking recipe, suggested by their personalised virtual assistant, depending on what they already have in their connected refrigerator. Also highlighted might be the wines that go well with the dish a customer intends to cook. “We’re entering the era of ambient shopping, where everything will be interactive,” predicts Nicolas Diacono, who sees the advent of this technology in ten to fifteen years’ time.
Yet another area for potential improvement is the checkout process. “The checkout queue remains today the least enjoyable part of the in-store experience. Streamlining this process, reinventing the payment procedure, will be one of the most important innovations,” stresses Nicolas Diacono. This means allowing customers to leave the shop without first having to go through the checkout. The items in their trolley would be recognised and tallied up on the customer’s smartphone app. Says Diacono: “This is for instance what Amazon is aiming for with Amazon Go, but the technology isn’t yet sufficiently mature. The costs are still too significant for this to be a profitable approach for a shop.” So the right system still needs to be developed. Explains Matthieu Jolly: “There already exists a technology that enables a retailer to automatically recognise the items in your basket when you pass the checkout – RFID, which is used by for example Nespresso. So it’s technically feasible to scan your selected articles, pay with your smartphone and leave the shop. However, for this to work, all the products on sale would need to be fitted with an RFID chip, which is still far too expensive for all the items purchased at a grocery outlet.”
Lastly, the store of the future will be optimally organised through the use of advanced technologies. It will be equipped with robots set up to answer basic questions – this is what Pepper does already – or to direct customers to the products they are looking for, while human sales assistants focus on giving more sophisticated advice and on building the customer relationship. Robots will also no doubt have a role to play at the store’s warehouses. Supplying and restocking will be made easier through the use of AI and image recognition technology. As they move along the shelves, robots will be able to scan products and identify those that are out of stock, a task that could equally be carried out by connected trolleys equipped with cameras. Overall, sophisticated data management will enable retailers to get a better grip on what lies ahead. Nicolas Diacono foresees: “The store will be optimised by drawing on a threefold data input based on the customer’s needs, the environment – i.e. the weather, events that are taking place in the town, etc. – and the store itself. They will thus be able to make more accurate stock forecasts, taking into consideration seasonal factors, and will therefore be more efficient at restocking. A Decathlon store would for example be able to predict three or four days in advance how many bicycles it will sell during the coming weekend.”. So at the end of the day, this well-established social institution that we know as a ‘retail store’ still appears to have a bright future.
In the future, will we use CO² to build?
It sounds somewhat futuristic, but today building with CO² is possible. Thanks to accelerates carbonation, CO² is used to produce building material. A sustainable footpath in Ghent illustrates how promising this new technology is.
In mid-December, CO2 Value Europe, a think- and do- tank representing the carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) community in Europe, held a webinar about the use of CO2 to create building material. Concrete examples of this sustainable technology were given to illustrate the potential they can offers, especially in the hard-to-abate construction sector. BNP Paribas Fortis and CO2 Value Europe are partners in issues related to financing innovative and sustainable technologies. As an institution, we work hard to promote corporate sustainability.
The second-most polluting industrial sector
As well as being one of the largest in the world, the cement industry's high levels of flue gas emissions also make it one of the most polluting. Cement is a crucial component in concrete, which is vital for the building sector. A sustainable alternative to cement could make a huge difference. One option here is carbonation, also known as CO2 mineralization. While this CCU technology is not yet well known, it has the potential to play a crucial role in mitigating climate change.
Giving nature a helping hand
Carbonation is a natural process, where minerals react with CO2 to create e.g. limestone and dolomite. In nature, this process takes thousands of years, but today, thanks to innovative methods, this time can be cut down to some minutes. This process requires relatively small amounts of energy and can be used to create several different products, including bricks where CO2 is sequestered permanently.
CO2 all the way
The development of CCU technology has accelerated sharply in recent years. We now have cement alternatives that meet the building sector’s technical requirements. There are various ways to store CO2 into construction materials. For example, CO2 can be injected as an alternative to water for hardening cement. What’s more, CO2 can be used to convert mineral waste from steel and mining industries into new products such as aggregates, which can be used as a basis for paving or building blocks.
Good for the planet
Mineralization of CO2 has a significant impact on the environment, because it has an effect at different levels. The annual global reduction in CO2 emissions is estimated to be 250 - 500 million tonnes by 2030 (source CO2 Value Europe).
- CO2 can be captured from flue gas emitted by industrial processes used to create steel, cement, and chemicals, with no need for concentration or treatment.
- CO2 can be captured directly from the atmosphere to create negative carbon emissions, i.e. carbon removal.
- In both cases, the CO2 will be stored permanently in building materials.
- Mineral waste and even construction waste are used together with CO2 to make new building materials, so it reduces landfills and the associated costs.
- Recycling carbon and construction wastes means fewer new natural resources are exploited.
What’s the catch?
New developments are never without their challenges, and this is no exception. Offering a competitive, quality alternative to concrete in a circular economy requires investment and adaptation.
- Factories will have to adapt their plants. Locating them close to significant sources of CO2, like a steel factory, is recommended so the CO2 and the waste fractions do not have to be transported.
- Manufacturing new products takes energy and creates CO2 emissions, even if the products are made using carbon dioxide and waste. It is why renewable energy should be used as much as possible to increase the sustainability of the processes.
- The commercialization of accelerated carbonation technologies is quite recent, and some processes are not optimally equipped for this yet.
- The lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks is also a drawdown to allow for a fast deployment of CCU technologies. This is an area CO2 Value Europe is especially working on.
Despite these challenges, Andre Bardow (Professor of Energy & Process Systems Engineering, ETH Zurich) told us during the webinar that he is convinced CO2 mineralization reduces the CO2 footprint from a life cycle perspective, even more than carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Zero domestic waste
There are already companies producing low-CO2 construction materials around the world. One of them is in Limburg. Orbix, in Genk, has successfully extracted minerals from steel production waste (known as slag) which are used as a basis for eco-friendly concrete stone. Not only is liquid CO2 used to produce concrete stone rather than polluting cement, but residual waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfill is also recycled.
There is a great example of this in Ghent, where Orbix worked with the Flemish research institute VITO to create the Stapsteen project for the city. Visitors can walk on Belgium’s first-ever circular economy footpath in the Leewstraat: 100m2 made entirely from sustainable bricks, saving a full 2 tonnes of CO2.
Do you have sustainability plans for 2021? Our experts at the Sustainable Business Competence Centre can provide advice about innovations like CO2 mineralisation and support your sustainable transition.
Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
Robovision has emerged as the best-known AI player in the Benelux countries. However, this young firm has an even more extensive vision. “Healthcare, agriculture, the environment… within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent,” foresees CEO Jonathan Berte. BNP Paribas Fortis is an important partner in their growth.
Jonathan Berte, who trained as a civil engineer, smiles as he thinks back to the pioneering years at Robovision. “In fact, when I was a kid I had a really analytical mindset. In the scouts and at school I used to keep note of absolutely everything. It was really important for me to collect information. I was a kind of ‘infoholic’. But just gathering information gets you nowhere. That also goes for information that’s just stored on hard disks. The added value comes from using that information efficiently.”
How exactly do you do that at Robovision?
“Technology is evolving at lightning speed. These days just about everybody has a smartphone in their trouser pocket. Apart from anything else, these devices create a great deal of information, so we need to keep up on the algorithmic front and artificial intelligence helps us with that. That’s how we can provide governments, institutions and companies large and small with a platform for automated decision-making on the basis of visual data. In addition we constantly ask ourselves how we can democratise artificial intelligence. So in a way we’re like the Airbnb of artificial intelligence.”
What might that visual data be for example?
“In May, in collaboration with the University of Antwerp and security firm Securitas, we set up a smart camera in a shopping street in order to measure to what extent people were complying with social distancing requirements. This is important information for the decision makers in this country. Of course we don’t have to look through the images ourselves. We get them analysed using a specific type of artificial intelligence – self-teaching algorithms or what are known as neural networks. They’re designed somewhat along the lines of our own brains, though not nearly as complex.”
Which brings us to the fashionable expression ‘deep learning’. Are machines eventually going to make themselves smarter than us humans?
“Oh, that’s already underway at this very moment – in radiology, among other fields, plus also in games. Remember the legendary Go match between South Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol and a computer, which was beautifully represented in the 2017 documentary film AlphaGo? We’re also focusing on deep learning, because neural networks are very efficient at dealing with visual data. However, it will be some time yet before AI can equal a human being in intuition for instance.”
You’ve now evolved from a startup to a scaleup. Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
“The society of tomorrow will be one in which everything will be properly measured and dealt with. For instance, we’re also working in the field of horticulture, where AI can be applied in quality control – to spot fruit with an abnormal shape or colour, say. Lots of agricultural and horticultural businesses have got into difficulties over the last few months because pickers from Eastern Europe weren’t able to enter this country. Those businesses will very probably be investing in AI and automation over the next few years. In these kinds of fields, the coronavirus has taken us to a digital society almost overnight.”
What sort of partners do you need in order to succeed in your aims?
“During our growth from startup to scaleup, BNP Paribas Fortis has always been an important partner. You have really taken a lot of trouble to understand our story. Of course you do need to grasp our plans from a banking standpoint in order to be able to assess the risks. But quite apart from that, I have the feeling that you’re particularly good when it comes to supporting the whole tech and startup scene.”
Sunglasses that can help save the oceans
Yuma Labs makes sunglasses from recycled PET bottles. The Belgian firm has grown from a one-man startup into a company that manufactures items for other brands as well. But can the firm combine growth with sustainability? At BNP Paribas Fortis we certainly think so.
Yuma Labs (originally named YR Yuma) is the brainchild of Sebastiaan de Neubourg, explains his business partner Lenja Doms. She tells us: "Sebastiaan was working as a consultant, but he was itching to set up his own business. His idea was to use a 3D printer to make sunglasses from recycled plastic. He then found out at first hand why no-one had tried this before. Because it proved to be quite a bit harder than expected,” laughs Lenja.
By 2017 Sebastiaan had a workable prototype and he started a crowdfunding campaign for his sustainable sunglasses. It was an immediate hit. However, the project wasn’t first and foremost about achieving successful sales, reveals Lenja. “Sebastiaan saw the sunglasses primarily as a tool for making people aware of the basic principles of the circular economy. There’s no such thing as waste. A used Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle provides the raw material for a new product, such as a pair of sunglasses.” And to complete the circle, the customer is encouraged to trade the sunglasses back in at the end of their life, in exchange for a new pair at an attractive discount.
Sustainable manufacturing, as Yuma Labs does it, inevitably means that the final product is more expensive. “Fully twice as expensive,” Lenja points out, explaining: “We certainly don’t want to see the circular economy pigeon-holed as the province of the elite. We already take account of the entire life-cycle of a product, and we take responsibility for the recycling and re-use of the materials. And let’s be quite clear about this: that’s more costly than just putting a product on the market without worrying about what happens to it later.”
Aiming for growth
In summer 2019, Lenja Doms and Ronald Duchateau came on board the Yuma team. This provided an opportunity to broaden the focus and look further than the consumer market. This month, Yuma Labs announced a collaborative project with a major fashion company. This upscaling will enable Yuma Labs to reach out to a much larger audience.
A good mix
In order to grow, a business needs financial resources. Yuma Labs has looked into quite a number of possible solutions, says Lenja. “These days there are a lot of initiatives designed to support sustainable businesses – from banks, the government and private investors. We’ve always tried to find the right balance between our own capital and external finance, and to achieve a good mix of different forms of finance between capital, grants and loans.”
Lenja has a golden tip for other businesspeople in the circular economy: "All too often I observe that the economic side of the story is neglected because companies keep on trying to find the perfect solution or the perfect product. There’s no sense in that. You shouldn’t try to be whiter than white.”
Creating added value
At BNP Paribas Fortis, Maxime Prové is the Account Manager for Yuma Labs. He endorses Lenja Doms’ view on this. “Entrepreneurs who set out to do sustainable or social business must also have a desire to create added value, otherwise the business won’t last,” Maxime points out, underlining: “You can’t pursue a sustainable, environmental or social business model unless it’s underpinned by a profit-making scenario. That’s the only way you’ll be able to grow, hire more people and make a greater impact.”
Photo: Karel Hemerijckx
Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
The Antwerp-based scale-up IPEE transforms ordinary toilets into innovative products. BNP Paribas Fortis is more than just the financial partner. IPEE have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times.
“The traditional urinal has no brain. The infrared eye simply detects that someone is standing in front of the urinal. The result? A lot of wasted water and misery”, says Bart Geraets, who founded IPEE in 2012 together with Jan Schoeters.
The scale-up devised new measuring technology that makes it possible to detect through the ceramic of a urinal when someone is urinating or when the urinal is blocked. With this innovative technology, the scale-up designed urinals that use half as much water and toilets that can be operated without touching them.
“IPEE is an atypical scale-up that innovates in a sector where little has changed in the past few decades”, says Conchita Vercauteren, relationship manager at the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Hub.
Jan Schoeters: “At first we mainly focused on durability. But we soon felt that with non-residential applications, the potential water saving is subordinate to the operational aspect. We had to be able to offer added value for each stakeholder in the purchasing process.”
We opted for sleek designs to appeal to architects and end users. The simple installation attracts fitters and maintenance people see the advantages of the sleek design - that is easy to clean - and toilets that do not overflow.
Until 2015, Schoeters and Geraets, along with Victor Claes, an expert in measuring methods and originator of the IPEE technology, put their energy into product development and market research. The financing came mainly from money that they collected in their network of friends, fools and family.
They had to go elsewhere to obtain the funds for production and marketing. Geraets: “We had a product, but it wasn’t ready to sell. To take that step, we needed investors.”
Looking for new investors was a challenge. Schoeters: “We aren’t software developers and we don’t work in a sexy sector. So we miss out with a large target group of investors.”
The young scale-up attracted the attention of Ronald Kerckhaert, who had sold his successful company, Sax Sanitair, at the end of 2015. “He pushed us to think big, more than we dared ourselves. And he never headed for an exit. His express goal was to put our product on the world market”, says Schoeters.
IPEE has achieved impressive growth since then. The product range was expanded and new sectors were broached: educational institutes, office buildings and hospitals. The technology is now used by Kinepolis, Texaco, Schiphol and Changi Airport (Singapore).
“We very soon turned to Asia, because new technology is embraced more quickly there”, Geraets explains. The IPEE technology is distributed in Singapore - where the scale-up has its own sales office - China, Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. About half the turnover comes from abroad, although the coronavirus crisis will leave its mark this year.
“My biggest headache is achieving healthy growth”, says Bart Geraets. One advantage for IPEE is that in coronavirus times, hygiene stands high on the agenda. The scale-up's touchless toilet facilities meet that demand.
At the same time, the shortage of water and the need to use water sparingly is very topical. Geraets: “We notice that in these strange times we are gaining an even bigger foothold. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis we concluded a contract with the world’s biggest manufacture of toilet facilities. Now it’s a matter of further professionalising our business, the personnel policy and the marketing.”
The company’s main bank is an important partner here. Schoeters: “It is more than just a financial organisation. We have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times. Our bank feels more like a supporter that is also putting its weight behind our story.”