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COVID-19 Changed the Future of In-Store Shopping—Here’s What You Should Know

As an employee in the retail sector reading this headline, you might have a fair response: what didn’t COVID-19 change about in-store shopping in 2020?


Consumer demand for in-store experiences took a hit, particularly as questions about how COVID-19 could be transmitted remained unanswered. Those who were willing to continue shopping in-person had new, completely reasonable demands: sanitized shopping carts, aisles that are compatible with social distancing, facemasks on employees, and abundant Purell being a few common requests.


You likely retrofitted or beefed up your online offerings to accommodate the new wave of shoppers diverted (by choice or mandate) from physical stores. You likely welcomed such revenue, as online shopping has become the saving grace for countless retail operations in the past year.


However, as vaccines are being dispersed, you may redouble your efforts to get customers back in your stores—generating renewed revenue for the investment you’ve made in your brick-and-mortar locations.


Most available statistics paint us a picture of COVID-19’s effect on retail from the macro perspective. Rather than summarizing such findings, we believe that understanding COVID-19’s effect on consumers as individuals could be even more beneficial for molding your in-store strategy in 2021.


That’s why we launched our State of Consumer Behavior 2021 report, which we hope will give you greater insight into how customers view retail and the opportunities it presents, its potential drawbacks, and what they most want from the in-store experience.


COVID-19 made online shopping more attractive


You don’t need to be a sociologist to understand why online shopping was “turbocharged” by the pandemic. Shopping online is less risky to your health for several reasons—it always has been and probably always will be.


COVID-19 undoubtedly heightened the public’s awareness of their own vulnerabilities. We found that more than 40% of consumers who responded to our poll reduced their frequency of visits to brick-and-mortar retailers in 2020, in part because of concerns for their own health.


And yet, many consumers who had the opportunity to do so continued to visit physical retail locations. Or, to be more accurate, they continued to visit physical retail locations retrofitted for the age of COVID-19.


COVID-19 revealed shoppers’ loyalty to brick-and-mortar retailers


We live in an age where you can order virtually anything online and receive the product in no more than a couple of days. And yet, shoppers continued to visit brick-and-mortar retail locations throughout 2020 when granted the opportunity.


Yes, shoppers, by and large, reduced their visits to physical stores in 2020—with mandated closures and genuine uncertainty about COVID-19, they had little choice. But we found that even with their health considered, 46% of respondents still prefer to shop in-person rather than online.


This says a lot about consumers’ loyalty to their favorite retailers, and it speaks to the opportunity for a massive retail rebound in 2021, health considerations permitting.


Remember, the retail sector was experiencing an uptick in sales before the pandemic, and we believe that cautiously willing shoppers could help retail get back on track in 2021.


Shoppers became conscious of your store’s safety, and they’ll remain conscious of it


Before COVID-19 became a stalwart in the public consciousness, consumers may have formed their initial impressions of your store through:


  • Its visual aesthetic
  • Your quality of customer service
  • Your variety of products
  • The physical layout and organization of your inventory
  • The time it took them to checkout
  • The overall customer experience, from entry to exit


These all remain vital criteria for you to consider when designing the customer experience in 2021. However, COVID-19 introduced an entirely new set of criteria that, for some customers, takes precedence overall.


Your store may now be judged by:


  • How far apart your shelves, clothing racks, or other types of displays are, which determines the space provided by your aisles
  • Whether employees are wearing masks and gloves
  • Whether you are sanitizing various surfaces, including but not limited to shopping carts
  • Whether you offer features like self-checkout for customers who want to minimize their person-to-person interactions


In short, you will be judged by your stores’ safety. It may be true that a vaccine will reduce the importance of health protocols in how customers evaluate your business. 50% of respondents said that a vaccine would improve their outlook towards in-person shopping, but nearly 28% of respondents said it would not.


COVID-19-related protocols were one of the most prominent changes to in-store shopping in 2020. You may have gone above and beyond the steps that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended.


Many retailers deftly wove health protocols into their existing operations, providing customer safety while maintaining a much-needed sense of normalcy and positivity for shoppers.


While shoppers and retailers get the lay of the land post-vaccine in 2021, you may continue to err on the side of safety, but continue to do so within your brand’s ethos. You can give assurances of your store’s safety through digital signs, continue to offer self-checkout, and encourage customers to utilize click-and-collect experiences like curbside pickup. COVID-safety is part of the new normal in retail, and sticking with your existing safety measures will be a must until the market and health experts dictate otherwise.


Maximizing Retail in 2021 Means Offering Customers a Unique Experience


COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in 2020, robbing Americans of health, jobs, financial security, and in many cases happiness. It also robbed Americans of so many of the experiences that bring them joy, shopping being on that list.


Customers crave such experiences—let’s be clear, they need such experiences.


26% of respondents to our State of Consumer Behavior 2021 report said that the opportunity for an experience was the primary draw of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.


Your stores can be a refuge for Americans seeking a sense of normalcy, of nostalgia for the experiences that were once so routine. You can uplift customers with a variety of micro-experiences within your store—trivia, interactive discount opportunities, social sharing of their visit—at no cost to them.


Plus, they can shop.


Retailers can use digital signage to drive brand loyalty by offering varied customer engagement opportunities (like trivia and scannable in-store discount codes). They can use the very same signage to communicate their in-store safety protocols or display videos and graphics that support the tone of their store and messaging of their brand.


Make 2021 a year of value and experiences for customers who deserve both, and your customers will reciprocate by returning to your store not just for the products, but for the experience you provide them.




Bobby Marhamat

Bobby is the CEO of Raydiant, a digital signage provider that helps businesses turn their TVs into interactive signs that drive sales, improve the in-store experience, and reinforce brand messaging. Prior to joining Raydiant, Bobby served as the COO of Revel Systems where he worked on the front lines with over 25,000 brick and mortar retailers.

Bobby has held leadership positions including CEO, CRO, and VP of Sales at companies such as Highfive, Limos.com, EVO2, Verizon Wireless, LookSmart, ServerPlex Networks, and Sprint/Nextel. When Bobby’s not spending his time thinking about the future of brick and mortar retail, you can find him traveling, reading, or tending to his vegetable garden.