Hands-Free Shopping: Consumers Trade in Hands-On for Contact-Free

As businesses reopen across the country, consumers must navigate a new reality in light of COVID-19. Health experts continue to advise the public to limit necessary outings, eschew close contact with non-family members, maintain social distancing, and avoid touching surfaces in public to limit exposure.

Where does that leave brick-and-mortar stores, and how do they get shoppers back through their doors?

All signs indicate that brands and retailers need to provide an in-store, contact-free shopping experience that is safe enough to motivate customers to return to the stores until the global health crisis subsides—and into the foreseeable future.

Adapting to a New Reality

Before the coronavirus pandemic, customers were already exhibiting a preference for online shopping over in-store browsing. This trend reached its peak during the 2019 holiday season. Statista, a provider of market and consumer data, reports that last year’s Cyber Monday broke the one-day e-commerce record in the United States with $9.4 billion in online sales. That figure jumps to an estimated $28.5 billion when the five days leading up to Cyber Monday is included as well.

Despite the migration to digital platforms, in-store shopping still holds a special place in consumers’ hearts. At the moment, online purchases cannot adequately provide what some refer to as “retail therapy.” Shopping makes many people happy. Customers get to spend time with friends and enjoy the instant gratification of seeing and touching merchandise in person, trying on clothes, makeup, and more. Beyond the satisfaction of the purchase itself, customers seek “therapeutic” interpersonal and tactile stimulation.

However, the coronavirus has dramatically altered the shopping experience. Consumers were forced to stay in their homes for an extended time, which was unprecedented. During state and local lockdowns, online shopping was their only choice for getting non-essential items, which further accelerated the movement toward safe and acceptable e-commerce alternatives.

Now with re-opening policies from state and local authorities, brands need to provide a store atmosphere with a different draw to pull customers back into the physical retail space. Replacing yesterday’s tactile encounters with new hands-free experiences can still excite customers while making them feel safe and engaged.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) has made recommendations that stores ensure: (1) adequate lighting that showcases merchandise, (2) impactful signs that provide needed customer guidelines and directives, and (3) enough space for shoppers to comfortably social distance from each other. These measures project the image of a quick, convenient, and ultimately safer shopping trip without eliminating the aesthetic appeal of the in-store experience.

Each phase of the retail process must provide consumers with contactless shopping options, according to the NRF’s Operation Open Doors Checklist and explored below.

Curbside and In-Store Pickup

Once the pandemic hit, many brands and retailers began to tout their Buy Online, Pickup in Store (BOPIS) options. Large brands such as Macy’s, Nordstrom, Target, Office Depot, and The Container Store are among the companies that advertise this hybrid shopping option, which limits the time consumers spend outside their homes without them having to experience shipping delays.

Curbside pickup is not an entirely new phenomenon. Many businesses in the retail industry already offer it, but BOPIS has taken on added significance because it is an entirely contact-free transaction:

Step 1: The customer places an order from the safety of their home, either through the store’s website or mobile app using their own device.

Step 2: An email or app confirmation notifies the customer when their purchase is ready.

Step 3: The customer follows the drive-up instructions.

Step 4: Upon arrival, the customer picks up the purchase in-store at a designated location, or a store associate loads the purchased items into the customer’s vehicle without touching anything besides the trunk or door handle.

Pickup lockers and vending machines help to further reduce in-store contact. In 2018, two major retail brands enhanced their curbside pickup with these features:

• Home Depot put lockers in select locations to speed up the purchasing process for customers ordering online for store pickup.

• Walmart installed “pickup towers” that automatically present a customer’s purchased items after they scan their Walmart order confirmation code on the tower’s digital screen.

Virtual Product Fitting and Testing 

Traditionally, the fitting room has been a key part of the shopping experience. According to USA Today, they remain open in some stores, such as Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Even so, shoppers can expect to see the following changes that are in line with the NRF’s store opening checklist:

• Fewer available fitting rooms

• Cleaning before store opening and in between customer uses

• Available hand sanitizer and signs encouraging customers to sanitize before entering

• Merchandize quarantined for a defined period of time after a fitting and possibly cleaned

One way to offer safe fitting room use is to provide video chats between store associates and customers. During co-browsing sessions, shoppers can virtually select the items they want to try on. Once they arrive at the store, a fitting room and their selected merchandise will be waiting for them.

Another alternative involves asking shoppers to schedule fitting room appointment times. With either co-browsing or room reservations, customers spend less time in the store and avoid unnecessary contact with others while still being able to see how items fit before committing to a purchase.

Retailers such as T.J. Maxx and Kohls that have closed their fitting rooms altogether can suggest customers use the MySizeID app, a tool that helps people find the right fit for any brand’s size.

Non-clothing brands can also use virtual testing technology that limits physical contact. Here are two examples:

• L’Oréal Paris has a tool that helps shoppers virtually experiment with its cosmetic products

• Sherwin-Williams’ ColorSnap® Visualizer lets people digitally view paint colors in their home

Touchless Checkout

Touchless options let customers wrap up their shopping trips with a checkout process that limits their interaction with other people and high-touch surfaces.

Encourage social distancing by reworking the checkout line with features such as:

• Customer waiting points at six-foot intervals

• Six feet of space between the customer and cashier

• Barriers at the checkout counter

The pandemic is also increasing consumer comfort with mobile payments. When they use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Google Pay to order, shoppers only have to touch their own phones or wearables; they never have to touch the store’s PIN pad device, and they like that.

Some brands like Sam’s Club offer a scan-and-go feature in their app, which also reduces contact at checkout. To purchase items, the consumer simply scans the product’s barcode, loads it into their cart, and pays for it with the preferred payment method they’ve selected in the app.

No-Contact Returns 

The transition toward a hands-free shopping experience involves reworking one more in-store process—returning previously purchased merchandise.

Before COVID-19, customer service lines were notoriously long. Shoppers would wait close to one another to get their money back for clothes that did not fit or items that did not work out for them.

People will still need to return purchases, but in this environment, customer patience for the traditional set-up is limited. Technology can help streamline the return process. For example, Walmart lets customers initiate their returns through its app, thus limiting the duration of in-store interaction. Returns could also be handled via tools such as the BOPIS locker—using a store app to initiate a return, the shopper could leave the order for return in a designated and secure area within the store.

Consumers also want to know what happens to returned merchandise. How will the store go about verifying the item or minimizing the chance of spreading infection? Providing a transparent explanation of the verification, disinfecting, and quarantining process for these items helps reassure shoppers that retailers care about their time, health, and safety. Displaying this policy in visible locations—both online and in-store—will help allay consumer fear.

Contact-Free Shopping for the Long Term

McKinsey & Company’s analysis provides insightful suggestions for helping the retail industry navigate COVID-19 and its aftermath.

In reimagining stores for retail’s next normal, McKinsey warns that “stores can’t simply pick up where they left off” when they reopen. Contact-free and self-serve options will be more important than ever to meet consumer expectations.

The firm’s survey to gauge U.S. consumer sentiment during the coronavirus crisis offers more proof that life will not return to “normal” soon. Significantly, the research showed that “consumers have adapted to the homebody economy with new habits.” Furthermore, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of them are not ready to return to “regular” activities outside of their homes.

Retailers and brands take heed—this is key information for devising and implementing effective retail marketing strategies. The vast majority of consumers are only willing to participate in activities where they feel safe and able to limit their risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Therefore, brands and retailers need to convince people that shopping in their brick-and-mortar spaces satisfies that criteria by offering them innovative, safe, hands-free experiences.