The COVID-19 pandemic has made an enclosed retail space a scary place to be.
Consumers feel anxious in public, and when in close proximity to others. People are adopting new habits to increase their feeling of safety, none of which will go away soon like physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding touch—and all of which present a challenge to retail.
As shoppers slowly return to stores, smart retailers can demonstrate their adaptability with a new shopping experience that showcases brands in ways reconsidered for the safety of customers and associates. Being proactive and progressive with an enhanced experience will help you win a greater share of precious foot traffic. We can fully expect that shoppers are going to respond to this new normal by shifting their loyalty to brands that make them feel safe and cared for in the store.
Here are five new rules to consider as we all adapt to this new paradigm:
1. Consumers will prioritize personal safety before all else in making shopping decisions
While consumers may previously have prioritized convenience, selection, brand, proximity or any of a dozen other factors, personal safety will now leap to the top. Consumer behavior thus far during the pandemic already highlights this: if something can be procured online or via a delivery service, those options are the clear winners. Retailers that can extend the customer experience seamlessly and compellingly to the home and mobile will win share of business.
Consumers will also demand transparency from retailers regarding their cleanliness and sanitation practices, favoring retailers that have a public and enforced standard for personal protective equipment compliance. For some businesses, reopening may be contingent on providing such equipment to their guests and staff.
People will go out of their way for safety. They will discard brand loyalty for reasonable substitutes if those substitutes are available in safer and more sanitary environments. They will reward retailers who practice care for employees and consumers alike.
2. Consumers will suspend retail as a leisure-time or entertainment
This trend was in play even before the pandemic, but post-lockdown it will be more commonly adopted. Shopping trips will be planned, specific and focused in order to lessen the risk of unwanted contact – and retailers whose strategy still depends upon casual browsing or walk-ins will suffer lasting decreases in revenue.
As testing and effective treatments become more widespread, the public will likely return to more casual shopping habits, but retail shopping centers – food courts, cinemas, children’s play zones – may no longer provide the same draw. Finding ways to make browsing enticing, relevant and safe will present a significant new challenge.
3. Consumers will favor retailers that prioritize and deliver transparency in product availability and assortment
Consumers will increasingly value the certainty of being able to confirm product availability before entering a retailer. We see this now with curbside pickup and similar personal shopping services. Accurate real-time inventory information is now even more critical, and consumers will be even less likely to forgive a failing in availability or order assembly.
If your online presence currently asks customers to call the store to check availability, you’re already very far behind. Inventory systems can and should be linked to your online presence in real time.
4. Consumers will favor stores where the layout and merchandising are spacious and open
Cramped merchandising and narrow aisles are now a clear visual deterrent to shopping. Shoppers will respond positively to wide walkways with fewer displays featuring a better-curated selection of merchandise. Gather points in stores – cash wraps, customer service queues, merchandise displays – will need to be reconsidered or eliminated.
Retailers should consider new strategies to open up literal breathing room on their floors. This means evaluating assortment, merchandising and layout. Shoppers want to feel relaxed, safe and respected, and don’t want to be forced into confrontations with other shoppers because of legacy cramped planograms.
5. Consumers will extend their power over retail via social media
While we might have hoped for a more collaborative attitude as we face a common enemy, narcissistic and entitled behaviors remain. With tensions and anxieties growing, people have resorted to shaming others on social platforms who fail to follow social distancing norms, hoard items, or demonstrate other behavior they find non-normative. People are even calling in law enforcement to complain about retailers’ failures to enforce social distancing.
If customers feel that a store’s environment is unsafe or unsanitary, that assessment will be broadcast far and wide. Retailers need to understand that their procedures for social distancing and sanitation—and how those procedures are perceived by the public—are now under constant inspection. Keeping a store clean is table stakes, but retailers should go further to reduce areas of vulnerability by substituting the digital for the physical where advisable.
To respond successfully, retailers must plan for a different future, and one that is perhaps forever changed They can do this by acknowledging that what has been done for years can no longer still be done. Retailers need to be transparent about cleanliness and sanitation practices. The physical store layout will need to change, too. Open up narrow aisles to create literal breathing room and space. Put fewer items on the retail floor.
Digital technology can bridge this distance between people and products. Consider the customer’s own personal mobile device as the new retail interface. There is a huge opportunity to promote the customer’s personal mobile device as an active, safe, and fun companion to the shopping experience. By pursuing a strategy that leverages existing and trusted technology to enliven a safe retail space, retailers will be minimizing risk and optimizing their connections with shoppers.
We believe that this was a predictable point along with the natural evolution of retail—Covid-19 has simply accelerated that growth. We work in a strong, innovative, responsive, and innovative industry, and we are ready to move forward.
Andy Austin is president and founder of The Industrious, a global creative agency that designs experiences to engender vital human interaction between shoppers and brands.
Andy is a retailer who also happens to have a technology background: As an executive director at AT&T stores nationwide, he led the retail rollout of the original iPhone.
He loves taking the old-fashioned things that some people might overlook, and putting them together with emerging technology to build experiences that delight shoppers and brands alike.