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How Walgreens successfully introduced contactless service in the wake of COVID-19

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Lindsey Allen

Even as states across the U.S. begin to reopen and customers venture back into stores, retailers are far from going back to business as usual. It’s a time of experimentation in retail, as the COVID-19 pandemic speeds up innovation and introduces shoppers to new devices and conveniences, many of which may become permanent fixtures of the shopping experience.

To encourage social distancing, many of these innovations have focused on minimizing shoppers’ time and physical contact in store. Services like online ordering and curbside or drive-thru pickup add extra convenience to the drug store visit, while new devices enable contactless payment and handheld order management for associates packing pickup orders.

One retailer that has responded to consumer demand for contactless shopping with quick pivots and thoughtful deployments of tech solutions is Walgreens. “The retail industry always continues to evolve,” says Andrea Farris, Walgreens’ vice president of development and head of solution planning and partnerships. “COVID-19 has just accelerated some of the trends we were already seeing in the marketplace.”

Shift to contactless services

Shopping is becoming a more autonomous experience, with self-checkout, curbside delivery and other solutions that help limit physical interactions between customers and store employees. As the pandemic struck, curbside pickup was already on Walgreens’ road map, but the company quickly deployed the new program to meet the safety needs of its customers and store associates.

Shoppers are increasingly gravitating toward experiences that bridge the convenience of e-commerce with the offerings of a physical store. “Since the pandemic hit, there have been definite behavior changes and a sharp increase in the use of contactless services, for obvious reasons,” Farris says.

Focus on the drive-thru

COVID-19 has illuminated the importance of drive-thru pharmacy service, not just for prescription and order pickup, but for expanded health services including virus testing. Drive-thru window service, generally associated with quick service restaurants, has been a boon for pharmacies as patients look for ways to practice social distancing.

Walgreens, which already offers drive-thru service in the majority of its pharmacy locations, was the first in the industry to expand the assortment of items available for order and pickup through the drive-thru window. Beyond the pharmacy counter, shoppers can now order selected grocery and household essentials.

In the future, pharmacy retailers may look for new ways to expand use of the drive-thru to create a new kind of tailored, omnichannel customer journey that is both convenient for shoppers and profitable for retailers.

Tech behind the scenes

Many chains, including Walgreens, are leveraging the store itself to improve the last-mile experience, offering same-day delivery or pickup in lieu of customers browsing in stores. “Even before the pandemic, we were already focused on last-mile delivery and omnichannel strategy execution,” says Farris, “whether it be leveraging the footprint of our stores or last mile with Fed­Ex and Postmates.”

Walgreens’ store associates use Zebra handheld mobile devices loaded with a suite of proprietary software applications such as the My Inventory App or Pick/Pack order management system to deliver quick, convenient and contactless service, as well as receive alerts and communications from corporate or store management. They also use Zebra’s ET50 tablets and TC51 handheld mobile computers to pick and fulfill orders from the backroom and store shelves. Once a customer completes an order online, the app triggers a notification to the associate’s device who prepares the items for pickup or delivery. The customer gets his or her own notification when the order is ready for pickup, either at a drive-thru window or in-store counter, or delivered curbside, it is and placed directly in the shopper’s trunk.

Predicting the future drug store experience

Only time will tell which of these store operations and consumer behaviors become permanent once the effects of the pandemic have waned, but retail experts like Farris believe there’s no going back — only forward. “These programs are here to stay,” he says, “but as we continue to adapt to ever-changing customer needs, these are just some of the solutions we will continue to invest in to provide an optimal customer experience.”

Either way, this embrace of new technologies will continue to power Walgreens’ reputation as a leader in retail innovation and customer service. “We want to be there for our customers,” Farris says. “For every opportunity to meet and exceed their needs, we want to be there in the community.”

Lindsey Allen is senior manager of retail and hospitality vertical marketing at Zebra ­Technologies.


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