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Adapting the Retail Experience Post-Pandemic: Now and in the Future

Though many retailers are anxious to re-open as they struggle to keep businesses afloat, they now face the challenge to modify operations and spaces to support the safety of employees and customers as shelter-in-place restrictions ease across the country.

In the immediate future, most will not have the resources to extensively renovate or relocate to spaces designed with the new normal in mind.

However, through creative, smaller adjustments, current spaces can be adapted to accommodate new operational procedures.


Short-Term Solutions

Customers may now be allowed inside, however, retailers may find that many of their customers may not be comfortable just yet. Therefore, beginning or continuing to facilitate curbside pick-up will help retailers maximize their sales. There are many technology platforms—such as Facebook Marketplace or Postmates—to help retailers market products and facilitate online transactions, but the most successful retailers will create a customer experience that seamlessly connects the online process to the curbside pick-up process.

Wayfinding signage is a key component of a seamless curbside experience. When dealing with an existing parking lot not designed for this purpose, the addition of clearly visible signage helps navigate the customer. Designate specific parking spaces with signage to clearly identify those areas. Ensure the signage also instructs customers how to alert employees they have arrived, even if email confirmations, text messages, or other customer communications also provide that information.

The installation of coded drop boxes placed outside and equipped with sanitization stations further reduces the risk of exposure for both employees and customers and can also be set-up to facilitate after-hours pick-ups. This option may be particularly attractive to customers from vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or immunocompromised individuals, who may wish to go at times when other customers are less likely to be present.

For customers coming inside, maintaining reduced occupancy capacities means either servicing customers by appointment only or creating outdoor waiting spaces. While these waiting spaces can be managed as minimally as a queue with six-foot interval markers on the ground, doing so can detract from the customer experience as no one enjoys waiting in line, even if they understand it is a necessary inconvenience. Instead, consider transforming it into an educational space with engaging signage that communicates what you are doing to keep patrons and employees safe, introduce activities to help pass the time or display anticipated wait times to manage expectations.


Looking Forward

As we look towards the future, there are opportunities to design spaces within the context of the new normal, be it a renovation or new construction. In either case, designing for flexibility will be key. For example, restaurants designed with large, sliding doors that open and close or moveable walls can convert spaces between indoor and outdoor. More extensive use of automated or otherwise touchless entry doors or antimicrobial materials for door handles, touchless faucets, and smart toilets will be incorporated.

Adapting materials typically used in employee or back-of-house areas, such as in commercial kitchens, that are easy to clean and disinfect is an opportunity for retailers to rethink their approach to interior design. As a starting point for re-evaluating materials used, retailers can look to healthcare, school, and office environments in which germ resistant and easy to clean and disinfect materials have been in use for some time. This creates an opportunity for retailers to approach interior design from a new perspective and for materials vendors to innovate, responding to public safety needs.


Other strategies to consider might include:

  • Installing air filters and UV systems capable of filtering out and killing viruses and bacteria.
  • Enlarging retail entries to make them more of a transitional space to serve the purposes of greeting, educational communications regarding safety measures, occupancy capacity controls and sanitization.
  • Rethinking pick-up or check-out counters, whether staffed or designed for self-service, with the incorporation of touchless technologies.
  • Integrating virtual and augmented reality technologies to help facilitate virtual or controlled try-ons.
  • Enlarging or re-configuring employee areas for social distancing, incorporating a wellness space, and areas where they can sanitize before and after shifts.


Many of these design strategies align well with the experiential retail trends that were already transforming the retail experience prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we work our way through the outbreak and into our new normal, there are opportunities for creative, smart retailers to evolve their businesses for long-term success as well as meeting the immediate challenges of this time.



Jun Ke

Jun is a creative designer and architect with an international background, specializing in contemporary retail, commercial and hospitality projects in the United States and China.

She is based out of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning’s Pleasanton headquarters and can be reached at Jun.Ke@dahlingroup.com.