Disruption is inevitable. Throughout history, countless ideas, inventions, and forces have drastically transformed entire economies, industries, and businesses. For some, the result was extinction. For others, it was unprecedented growth.
In the last 25 years, new technologies have been the main driver of organizational and brand disruptions. Today is different. In 2020, a natural threat—the coronavirus—is forcing change, and the retail sector cannot escape it. But even the challenge of navigating a pandemic could open doors for many businesses. After all, companies like Apple and Netflix have proven that disruption often reveals new opportunities for those willing to adapt to changing times.
If brands and retailers learn anything from past disruptive eras, let it be the art of reinvention. A complete reimagining of the consumer shopping journey is the best way to outlast this pandemic and prepare for a future shaped by it.
The Metamorphosis of Online and In-Store Retail Shopping
Retail shopping looks different now even compared to the beginning of 2020. The pandemic has prompted a full one-eighty, from significantly altered customer attitudes and behaviors to ever-evolving stay-at-home orders and transformative re-opening guidance. The end result could hardly have been imagined at the start of the year.
Brands now face unprecedented challenges in both their online and in-store operations. Higher-than-normal website and mobile app orders are placing greater demands on distribution centers. At the same time, staggered re-openings and calls for social distancing are upending the status quo of brick-and-mortar facilities.
Consequently, the retail industry needs to be prepared to fulfill continued shopper demand for merchandise, but it also must be ready and willing to meet their customers’ new and evolving expectations around personal safety. Successfully managing these somewhat competing objectives requires serious ingenuity.
Virtual and in-person shopping trips can be recreated in a way that still appeals to consumer senses but is devoid of any friction that makes them feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or inconvenienced. Kearney experts describe this desired end goal as a “distinctly positive human experience.” To achieve it, several aspects of traditional retail shopping need to be addressed.
Browsing Gets the Boot
From the moment customers walk through the front door until they leave the store (preferably with purchases in hand), they should immediately perceive a change. Right now, the best store layouts help visitors feel like they can safely and quickly find what they are looking for and get on with their day.
At the Front Entrance
It starts with storefront windows. Just like before COVID-19, colorful, eye-catching displays promote brand awareness and encourage people to buy. Unlike the past, this external store area is now likely the one remaining space where retail shoppers can feel safe to browse. Therefore, it’s crucial to maximize its appeal.
Window shopping today might occur before consumers enter the store, or while they are waiting for their curbside pickup, or walking by on their way to another destination. In the latter instances especially, visible signs telling them where they can purchase the items on display offers people a contact-free way to feed their buying impulse.
The store’s front vestibule affords another opportunity to spread brand messaging, and in particular, details about its coronavirus safety measures. In describing retail design in a post-pandemic world, the National Retail Foundation suggests this area be used as a “transition space” to educate customers. It should feature signs about mask wearing, social distancing, and navigating the facility.
Inside the Shopping Area
In the earliest days of pandemic-induced shutdowns, many grocery stores and other essential retailers instituted one-way traffic patterns, thus limiting face-to-face encounters between shoppers. Motion sensing lights, floor arrow decals, and thoughtful layout designs can also keep people subconsciously moving in the same direction, which facilitates social distancing.
In a recent article, Kearney recommends eliminating any store “choke points” previously set up to increase dwell time. This could be endcap or checkout racks filled with impulse displays that draw a crowd or where floor traffic and payment lines overlap.
Near the Checkout Area and Exit Door
At the cash register, store proprietors can facilitate safe behavior by demarcating six-foot intervals between customers, installing plexiglass barriers, and accepting mobile payments to reduce human-to-human and human-to-surface touchpoints.
Kearney’s advice on the new normal includes designating a floating associate who walks the store and helps people complete their purchases from a hand-held device. This idea decreases congestion at checkout and makes customers feel taken care of and appreciated.
Last but not least, using signage and store associates to direct visitors to exit through a designated door keeps them separated from those coming in the appointed entryway.
Attention Goes Both Ways
Customer relationships still require constant nurturing. That hasn’t changed and neither has the consumer desire for the personal attention needed to foster brand loyalty. But how shoppers want to receive that attention may vary greatly from person to person, and the preference of any given shopper may change over time. Being able to match fulfillment capabilities to these different customer needs is becoming more and more essential as this pandemic continues.
Deloitte experts suggest that one way to deal with capacity limits is to provide personal shopping services. This exclusive access could be another way to deepen the customer relationship beyond offering discounts and other rewards for loyalty.
Best Buy led with this strategy. Until mid-June, locations were closed to walk-in traffic. During that time, it accepted customers by appointment only. According to CEO Corie Barey, this approach allowed the retailer to provide true-to-its-brand “tailored one-on-one service” to customers that included a personal store escort and advice about various products.
For some customers, the only way to feel comfortable going out in public is to avoid personal interaction as much as possible. Allowing these individuals to handle shopping tasks themselves is another way to nurture the business-customer relationship. Potential self-service options include the following:
• Buy Online, Pickup in-Store (BOPIS) lockers that open upon scanning the order barcode
• Augmented reality programs and smart mirrors that let customers virtually try on items
• Store websites and apps that show what is in stock and where
• Self-checkout or scan-and-go options that let customers pay for their transactions on their own
Less Is More
During (and likely after) the pandemic, expect customers to be more goal-oriented when they shop. To that end, the retail consultants at both Deloitte and Kearney envision less merchandise in brick-and-mortar spaces in order to facilitate the new get-in-and-get-out mentality of consumers.
In fact, they suggest storefronts will become more like showrooms, with impactful merchandise displays in limited quantities that the general public can see or touch. Additional stock would be available for purchase, but until then, it would be safely housed in stockrooms accessible only by store associates.
In addition, these experts say that given the public health advice on avoiding the coronavirus, the physical retail store provides the perfect venue for inviting a limited number of VIP guests or loyalty customers to private events showcasing new lines.
Limiting store hours to the general public is a way for brands and retailers to offer exclusive shopping times for at-risk customer groups. Private shopping areas for individual customers can also be created where racks of merchandise used to be displayed.
Cleaning Is Trending Now
It should not be a surprise to anyone that shoppers feel more comfortable in stores that are clean and that they can see being cleaned. There are several ways to achieve this:
• Shopping carts being wiped down for each customer
• Hand sanitizer available at the entrance, in fitting rooms, and at the exits
• Organized shelves and racks with no clutter
• Fitting room and point-of-sale device cleaning between uses
• Online and in-store messaging about sanitation procedures
Mix and Remix Mediums
The most resilient brands are figuring out how to make their digital and physical operations work together in new ways that benefit customers and allay their fears. Some companies have already started developing new methods of achieving this:
• Salesforce notes that some retailers are segmenting locations for dedicated purposes: one for inventory overflow, a second for curbside pickup, and another for actual shopping.
• CNBC reports that some store employees are reaching customers through their personal social media accounts to show off the latest trends and looks.
• Deloitte suggests holding in-store livestream shopping events in which remote customers can order what they see via the brand’s app.
Retail Shopping Looks Different in 2020
In today’s retail climate, many major brands and retailers are focused on fulfilling surges in online orders due to the pandemic. But they cannot forget about the physical retail space. The Wharton School of Business explains why: Brick-and-mortar stores “add reach, give shoppers a first-hand product and brand experience, provide in-person advice, and allow online pick-ups and returns.”
The key to surviving this once-in-a-lifetime event is adapting these in-store environments to meet consumer expectations. Businesses that adjust their strategies quickly and effectively will be better positioned to weather future industry disruptions.