Updated: Jul 14
And perhaps surprisingly, we feel fine.
“Just browsing.” Those two words have been around as long as Retail has existed, but in today’s context, their meaning is substantively evolving. The COVID pandemic has imposed an unexpected stress-test on the industry, revealing cracks in underlying strategy and execution capabilities. With new sanitary requirements for social distancing and mask wearing, many shopping interaction modalities have been disrupted with the removal of most human contact and the imposition of limits on the use of store space.
“We’re kind of open, but you can’t come in.”1 This UK retailer’s comment is reflective of the current global shopping climate, where social distancing has significantly reduced the meeting of friends at the store and the fear of contagion has forced customers to avoid touching anything. Indeed, the face mask itself is a constant reminder that shopping remains a risky activity and has dramatically eroded the intimacy of in-store staff interactions.
So what is the new normal? How has the customer experience evolved in the months since sheltering in place began? We looked at emerging trends that we think are pandemic proof and here to stay.
Browsing has undeniable therapeutic value for shoppers and will accordingly persist in pandemic times, albeit in modified fashion. Webrooming is COVID-proof, but showrooming will continue with changes where quarantining of in-store inventory allows for periods of downtime in between customer’s physical interaction with merchandise. Consumers should expect brick & mortar locations to limit the number of visitors at any given point in time, reduce the number of physical in-store displays, and create one-directional shopping aisles to facilitate social distancing. For items for which physical browsing is an essential part of the shopping experience – books, for example – multiple hand sanitizing stations and store-issued disposable gloves upon store entry are likely. Self-checkout kiosks, cashless & contactless purchasing will proliferate, and window shopping will take on increased importance as retailers display more inventory in greater variety with shopper guidance that incentivizes online sales to offset limited in-store foot traffic.
The Greatest Show…In Store
For several years, retailers have used special events or services exclusive to brick & mortar locations to create differentiated in-store experiences that encourage shoppers to visit, stay longer, and ultimately spend more. These tactics are likely insufficient to tempt visitors to brave the pandemic, however, which means that non-essential discretionary purchasing will continue to migrate from in-store to digital channels. The lessons of this new reality are as follows:
Take inspiration from other industries. Movie theaters were forced to re-invent themselves in the face of the ascendance of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu & Amazon Prime, and retailers can do the same. Creative thinking with experiences that cannot be duplicated at home will drive foot traffic during COVID times.
Make shopping truly channel-agnostic. Better, more consistent integration of in-store & online browsing and buying experiences makes for superlative customer experiences. During the pandemic, curbside orders increased by 208%.2 Pure plays like StitchFix have proven that differentiators like personal shoppers can straddle both physical & digital channels; click & collect (BOPUS) and buy online/return in-store (BORIS) offerings should be expanded across product categories; support services associated with complex sales like electronics and home improvement can begin online, migrate in-store, and return online with consistently high degrees of personalization.
Become digitally native. Instead of attempting to replicate in-store experiences online, reinvent the shopping paradigm. Engagement with large, geographically distributed product enthusiast communities, enhanced application of predictive analytics, and increased adoption of augmented reality and multimedia tools are all examples of exclusively digital customer experience elements.
I Want It Now, Or Tomorrow At The Latest
With the continuing rise of Amazon during the pandemic, customer expectations associated with inventory visibility and compact, predictable delivery timeframes have only increased. Proactive organizations will accept this reality by examining operations with particular attention to end-to-end order fulfillment capabilities - and where necessary, adjust for more resilient and responsive supply chains. For example, Best Buy is adapting by piloting a ship-from-store hub model which is tailored to handle increases in sales volume pre-holiday and thereafter.3 Suppliers should be reviewed based on country-specific COVID impact and if needed, augmented or replaced to minimize disruption. Category sales will require even closer scrutiny to allow for rapid assortment shifts which are more pandemic-proof. And retailers can take cues from food delivery services like GrubHub & DoorDash to discount and provide incentives that sustain customer loyalty in the inevitable cases where inventory is limited or orders are unexpectedly delayed.
The Opportunity To Adapt
Retailers hunkering down to weather the pandemic storm are advised that this particular storm may abate, but it won’t disappear altogether - consumer habits have shifted, and as COVID lingers through the holiday season, new habits have become set. For some, acknowledging the new reality means facing a bleak future but for others who are more enterprising, this seismic moment represents an uncharacteristically stark opportunity to evolve. Those organizations that do so successfully – even if the change is painful in the moment – will be better positioned for both the next pandemic and to dictate the future best practices of customer engagement.
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