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The rise of the low touch economy


Over the last few years, consumers have increasingly turned their back on 'stuff' and opted for experiences as the so-called Insta-life took center stage. Everything from your favorite fast-food burger chain to your local supermarket replaced human cashiers with touchscreens that promised to speed up the process and improve the user experience. 

Predictably, businesses attempted to stay ahead of the curve by investing heavily in experience economy technologies. But then a global pandemic hit and everything changed in an instant. For example, the arrival of a widespread lockdown saw Primark's sales plunge from £650 million a month to zero. But as consumers emerge from quarantine, they will have a completely new list of expectations.

A combination of travel restrictions, rules around limited gatherings, and low-touch interactions have changed everything.

We now find ourselves in a world where social distancing has become the norm, and the media seems intent on turning the fear factor up to eleven. Trying on a pair of jeans in a fitting room or ordering your burger from a germ-infested touchscreen has become unthinkable. So, where do we go from here?

Welcome to the low touch economy, a phrase coined by the Board of Innovation

graph showing waves of low touch characteristics
Image: Board of Innovation

How brands showcase products will need to adapt to the isolation-induced behaviors of their consumers. With the physical touching of anything off-limits, something has to change. Although many will see nothing but uncertainty on the road ahead, successful businesses will be those that evolve with their customers to unlock opportunities.

Thermal Screening

The market worth of thermal scanners is predicted to be worth $7.6 billion by 2027. In just a few months, the use of thermal scanning devices has become commonplace at entry points everywhere, from restaurants to hospitals. It is hoped that thermal technologies that make it easy to check body temperatures of large crowds will provide much-needed peace of mind and help kickstart the economy.

image of thermal imager
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Sporting teams such as Wasps rugby club opted for Vodafone's Internet of Things (IoT) technology and heat cameras to safeguard players, staff, and visitors. Elsewhere, thermal imaging companies such as FLIR have seen a $100M surge in orders for elevated skin temperature screening.

We can expect to see thermal screening solutions in shopping malls, schools, offices, and airports that identify elevated skin temperatures. The effectiveness of the technology is still up for debate. Although it might succeed in restoring confidence, there is an argument that it could also lull people into a false sense of security.

The resurgence of QR codes

The humble quick response (QR) code has been around since 1994. Despite promising to be the next big thing for decades, they failed to meet consumers' expectations and meet their simple requirements that typically consisted of 'What's in it for me?' But as the low touch economy gathers place, QR codes are enjoying a resurgence.

As digital natives continue to question what they touch, many have already embraced more sanitary solutions such as contactless payments. QR codes are widely used for ticketing and enabling users to manage almost any form of transportation from their smartphone and avoid ticket booths or filthy touchscreens. But they have many other uses too.

For example, At the Frying Pan Manhattan boat bar, visitors will find a QR code rather than a number on their table. 

By scanning the code, customers can order and pay using their smartphone and avoid ordering from the bar.

The Tuna Bar, in Philadelphia, is using QR codes to access the menus, which saves time sanitizing the traditional physical menu. It has taken a global pandemic, but QR codes might finally take off and live up to the hype.

The rise of AR and experiential eCommerce

How we interact with products and brands is undergoing a dramatic transformation. AR technology brings the concept of mixed reality to life as the blurred lines between online and offline begin to disappear. MAC Cosmetics partnered with photo editing app YouCam to enable users to add MAC products to photographs and live videos in the hope they will buy the products with greater confidence.

By leveraging AR technology, MAC has been able to replicate the in-store experience with a virtual try-on feature that can be enjoyed at home. Elsewhere, Vodafone is leveraging AR when working with high street fashion retailer Mango to bring the concept of smart outfits and digital fitting rooms to life.

virtual reality to design a clothes in 3D fashion design software program
augmented mixed virtual reality to design a clothes in 3D fashion design software program creating virtual, true-to life garment visualization with cutting-edge simulation technologies for the fashion

The low touch economy will see us increasingly interact with more items online from our own devices.

360-degree rendered displays, digital showrooms, contactless payments, ticketless events, and the resurgence of QR codes are just a few examples of how it has taken a global pandemic to accelerate the adoption of technology that has been available for years.

A combination of regulations, restrictions, and anxiety have caused a shift in consumer behavior. But uncertainty is also a catalyst for innovation. As speculation increases about Apple's smart glasses and the possibility of self-driving cars hitting UK motorways next year, we can expect the pace of technological change to continue at a breakneck speed. 

In a socially distanced world, we can also expect the low-touch economy to thrive for the foreseeable future. How quickly businesses adapt and evolve with their consumers’ demands will determine who will thrive and survive in a post-pandemic world. But I suspect there will be a few surprises along the way.

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