As we prepare for what the future of retail holds, there's only one thing that’s certain: the in-store shopping experience has changed irrevocably. As stores start to open back up, it’s important that retailers are mindful of how consumer behavior has shifted since the pandemic, and what services and experiences are now expected of all brick-and-mortar shops.
“Regardless of the timeline, post-efficiency will require a major behavioral shift for both corporations and consumers,” said Ana Andjelic, who holds a PhD in sociology and serves as a retail strategy executive. “For the time being, social distancing and lower occupancy rates are going to be the new normal. We need to get comfortable in more spacious environments.”
In Part One of this three-part series, we’ll outline the essential technology and policies that retailers should implement as they plan to reopen their stores.
The groundwork for reopening retail stores
The lines between physical and online retail are now blurred. Behaviors have changed, and habits will stick around. Customers will continue to use safe, convenient alternatives like curbside pickup to get their products locally, but retailers must be prepared for a portion of their sales to shift to online channels permanently.
And though a sea change in how people buy and interact with businesses is unnerving, it also presents retailers with an opportunity to expand into new channels and rebound stronger than ever. The retailers who implement the right systems and policies while the industry is still finding its feet will have a clear competitive advantage.
Stores have an obligation to protect their staff and customers and must also work to rebuild consumers’ confidence to come out and shop. That means new processes and technologies that help maintain distance and reduce the risk of viral spread need to be put in place. The shopping experience is going to look and feel different for some time, but that’s an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic.
Here are a few services you should consider offering if you plan to reopen your retail store.
Curbside pickup (aka local pickup)
People will want to feel safe when they shop, and as such, will search out retailers with services like curbside pickup, BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store), and free local delivery.
The good news: there are tools that make this easy and retailers are rapidly adopting this technology. By the end of April 2020, 31% of Canadian brick-and-mortar shops were offering curbside pickup (compared to just 2% by the end of February 2020).
And, as of early May, Shopify merchants had recovered 94% of lost in-store revenue by moving online and using features like curbside pickup.
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Interest in curbside pickup will continue to grow as shoppers opt for a model that’s somewhere between delivery and in-store, referred to by some as the “retail-to-go” model. This model allows customers to place an order online and get same-day pickup at a nearby physical retail store.
We’re already seeing this model work in Texas, where retailers in shopping malls have created designated parking areas for curbside pickup. Their retail-to-go model operates by having the store tell the customer which of four color-coded parking lots to go to and when for a curbside pickup process that limits person-to-person contact.
Only 40% of US customers said they feel safe going to the store right now. This same survey showed that 82% of US shoppers have used digital payment apps and services, and 53% cite they’ll actively use them over the next four weeks.
Contactless payments allow retailers to continue serving customers while keeping them safe. Cash comes with risk and should be discouraged in favor of digital transactions. To make this easier, retailers should have a tap and chip card reader and should also consider accepting contactless digital payment methods like Apple Pay, Google Pay, and PayPal to further protect customers and staff.
Many retailers are either promoting more awareness of current offerings or have accelerated deployment of ‘no contact’ payment options. Overall, we do believe there will be an accelerated adoption [of contactless payments] coming from retailer push and customer demand in this space. What was more of a ‘convenience’ option has now turned to a ‘safety’ feature.
Now is also the ideal time for retailers to go paperless, as this helps minimize contact with customers as they begin shopping in-store again. Opt for email receipts in place of paper ones. As an added bonus, gathering customer emails as part of this process is an excellent way to stay in touch with customers. Email is a lifeline right now––it allows retailers to stay connected to shoppers, boosting customer retention, loyalty, and lifetime value.
Implement in-store distancing policies
Aside from following the guidelines set by government bodies and the medical community, be sure to focus on the health and safety of your staff and customers by creating documented physical distancing policies. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you do so.
Reevaluate your store layout
If behaviors change, locations must too. Part of re-opening your physical store will include reconfiguring your store’s layout. For example, if you have large displays and narrow pathways, it can be hard for shoppers and employees to maintain a safe distance. If needed, modify your layout to widen traffic lanes or put in place one-way aisles to ensure a smoother flow of traffic.
Depending on your space (and how many people you’re allowing in your store), you may also consider adding queue markers, such as tape on the floor that will help customers see where they need to stand to maintain a safe distance as they wait in line.
Assess the maximum number of people allowed in your store
Protecting your staff and customers will also involve understanding the limitations of your space. Walmart’s social distancing measures allowed “no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time; roughly 20 percent of a store’s capacity.” Think about the size of your space, and decide how many people realistically fit inside safely.
Establish a protocol for enforcing social distancing policies
As a result of the pandemic, consumers need to feel confident about safe in-store experiences. Having a clear protocol will help you enforce your maximum occupancy without alienating customers or frustrating staff. Nail down your processes for monitoring customer entry and in-store social distancing. It’ll be important to help your staff feel supported and confident to communicate those policies with shoppers.
Aside from distancing policies for shoppers, you’ll need some processes for staff safety as well. Make sure your employees have guidelines for staying protected at work, as well as access to PPE supplies like masks, gloves, and handwashing stations. If it makes sense for your store, think about providing an extra barrier for the comfort and safety of your staff and customers as well. Plastic barriers can help protect both parties.
Document, share, and make your policies visible
Promoting health and safety means being transparent about your policies. Communicate all changes to your staff and customers strategically, through every channel available to you (like email, social media, and in-store broadcasting). Additionally, post the policies in-store. Add signs to your windows, doors, and walls—think about what makes sense for your space and your customers.
Forge ahead with ecommerce efforts
You’ll still need to focus on your online efforts to accommodate customer preferences and make up for lost in-store revenue. Until customer confidence is back to normal, you can do this by recreating aspects of the in-store experience online. As a starting point, be sure to update your photos, product pages, and social media to reflect your in-store experience.
From there, there are other steps you can take to improve your digital store efforts.
Build or refine your omnichannel strategy
An omnichannel strategy means taking a fully integrated approach to commerce that provides shoppers with a unified experience across all channels. This will be increasingly important looking forward as shoppers continue to use a blend of online and offline options when making retail purchases.
No matter where a customer interacts with your brand, it looks and feels the same. As such, it’s important to make your customer experiences seamless across touchpoints, whether that’s online shopping, at curbside pickup, or in-store.
Offer virtual experiences
Think about offering new, innovative ways to serve your customers: you can schedule in-store shopping appointments (which can also help limit crowds in-store) or use an augmented reality tool like Size.link to help shoppers visualize the size and scale of your products from home. Bonus: there’s also a 3D modeling marketplace that allows merchants to hire an expert and turn photos of their products into high-quality 3D models (so shoppers can see how the actual product will look in their space).
Make changes today to prepare for a new normal
These next few months present a moment in which merchants have an opportunity to rebuild, reinvent, and rebound stronger than ever. It’s an opportunity to set the foundations to build and refine a solid omnichannel strategy with the latest technology and innovations so they can reach more customers than ever before.
We’ll continue this series next week and get into the nuts and bolts of improving your staff operations during COVID-19, how staff training is expected to shift, and what the top skills will be for store staff to succeed in the “new” retail world.