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How Small Brands and Entrepreneurs Can Navigate the New Era of Digital Retail The pandemic sped up innovation in retail. Entrepreneurs can seize this moment of opportunity.

By Melanie Nuce

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As smartphones are cemented into our society, two-dimensional barcodes have come to represent the future for the retail industry. Use of the QR code has exploded over the last year and a half. A series of pixels packaged into neat square-shaped grids, these codes have become commonplace and symbolic of a new era in contactless transactions. They can also define the consumer experience with individual products by appearing on product packaging, where they can offer access to important information that supports purchase decisions.

Emerging brands are excited about the possibility of connecting more directly with customers through a QR-driven experience. The higher-level implication of the QR code trend is that a brand's online identity is just as important, if not more, than its physical presence. According to Salesforce, more than 80% of the customer's shopping journey is now taking place online.

Entrepreneurs can prepare for this new era of digital and physical convergence and stay in tune with rapidly changing shopper behavior by peering behind the code, considering the impact of autonomous experiences and perfecting their digital presence.

Related: How Dynamic QR Codes Became an Essential Tool For Every Business Out There

Go behind the code

There's truly more than meets the eye when you are talking about a barcode, QR or any similar data carrier — it has a massive system of information sharing behind it. Due to the complex nature of how we move goods around the world today, brands and retailers are collaborating to share more data than ever before to create efficiency and earn consumer trust through transparency.

Consumer demand for information transparency has been the driving force behind retailers and major brands transitioning from linear UPC barcodes to two-dimensional barcodes by 2027. New technical standards like GS1 Digital Link can web-enable products, giving shoppers access to customized product information, not just a static website, that can be served up to the user depending on where and in which context the product is being scanned.

This is made possible via the product identifier behind the code — the item number that uniquely identifies a product in the global supply chain — like a fingerprint that no other product in the world has. The identifier, called the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), is a standard conceptualized by brands and retailers that joined together 50 years ago to make commerce work better for everyone. Today, the price of obtaining an authentic GTIN is just $30, making it easier than ever for entrepreneurs who are pioneering new territory in retail.

Related: Digital transformation of SMEs: an easier path to travel than you think

Think autonomous

Dramatic shifts in shopping behavior are driving forward not only a packaging revolution, but more tech-infused store experiences, including cashierless checkout, scan-and-go and other ways to maximize store trips with little human interaction.

For example, Caper recently partnered with Kroger on their KroGO smart cart systems, which features a touchscreen, barcode scanner and scale in the shopping cart to allow shoppers to scan and bag as they shop. Other camera-based technology can recognize items and ring them up in a grocery shopping cart or on a counter without any scanning.

What will your product's digital identity be in this autonomous world? To make it present on the shelf (digital or store shelf) in the first place is critical. To compete with larger brands, small brands need a solid foundation of structured data that is compatible with retailer systems. This will help you achieve better inventory control and become more attractive to new partners.

The pandemic accelerated emerging technology implementation in retail. While retail partners value the opportunity to expand their product selection with unique small brands, they have high expectations when it comes to data structure and standardization. They focus on meeting customer needs by solving challenges such as out-of-stocks and product shortages, and most are ramping up robotics, AI, drones and other tech augmentations to do so. Clean product data and a complete digital identity needs to be supplied to help these systems do their jobs.

Related: 4 Key Trends for Retail Entrepreneurs in 2021

Perfect your digital presence

While brick-and-mortar is very much alive, many shoppers are still opting to skip the store all together. Subscription ecommerce sales, for example, took off amid the pandemic, with 41% growth in the last year. according to eMarketer. As shoppers increasingly opt for home delivery, a product's digital identity actually becomes the only identity that matters — a crucial gateway between the shopper and the item that leads to either satisfaction or a return.

Accurate and complete product listings packed with images, reviews and proper identification numbers can convert sales and keep small brands on equal footing with the largest brands in the world when presented online. Not only is it necessary to pack a listing with multiple photos at every angle to highlight the product's key features, but think about the more expansive product characteristics that help it shine. Is it machine-washable? Is it sourced ethically? Does it contain natural ingredients? Plus, there are tools like tech startup Okendo for emerging brands selling direct-to-consumer (DTC) to help maximize consumer reviews and user-generated content. These key selling points are becoming standard parts of an effective product listing.

Ultimately, the pandemic sped up innovation in retail that was already intensifying as the consumer became more and more empowered. Entrepreneurs and emerging brands can seize this moment and take advantage of the new opportunities that come with disruption.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Are Combining Data and Tech to Compete With Large Retailers

Melanie Nuce

Senior Vice President, Innovation and Partnerships, GS1 US

Melanie Nuce leads a team that investigates new technologies such as IoT, blockchain, machine learning and AI for global standards organization GS1 US. GS1 administers the most widely used system of standards in the world, including the universal product code (UPC).

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