Retailers are slowly reopening their stores. They are cautious and continue to practice good safety measures like social distancing, non-touch payments, and curbside pick-ups. These actions are all good measures that were learned during the pandemic. But there is much more stores must do if they want to survive – no, thrive – in the post-pandemic world.
Even before the pandemic hit, there was pressure on retailers to make stronger, more meaningful connections with their customers. Without such personalized interactions, customers could be easily lured away to shop somewhere else. The pandemic has heightened the need to deliver more customized shopping experiences if a retailer wants to regain its past store traffic levels as the economy reopens.
Retailers are not sure when customers will come back in full force, but they must be ready for them. And, ready does not mean merely opening the doors and conducting business as usual. I find that the COVID-19 pandemic motivated new store-initiated ideas and accelerated their adoption. And now these new ways of doing business must become the new normal.
Here is a list of actions that were taken to survive during the pandemic and now should stay in place.
1. Buy on-line pick up in store. BOPIS (as it is called) has been an excellent contact-less way of stores selling to customers. The merchandise is just loaded into the car and the customer is ready to go home. The negative is that customers no longer need to come into a store to shop for incidentals or make impulse purchases. Winning stores will come up with creative programs that entice customers to add other items and make it easy to do no matter how much time a customer is comfortable spending in a store.
2. No-touch payments. For customers who do come into stores, many retailers have adopted the idea of no-touch payments by having self-checkouts, mobile wallets, and/or tappable credit cards. Shoppers do not like to stay in line because of health concerns. Retailers must accept the need for such agile check out options and plan to use them into the future.
3. Safety precautions. Retailers will continue to do more cleaning of critical spaces like fitting rooms and rest rooms. It will be a continued must in the future. And I expect to see new guidelines influence new store designs as well.
4. Ship from store. Retailers have found it more economical to ship from stores rather than from a distribution center. In most cases, it requires a larger back room to create an efficient operation. This new fulfillment process aligns well with my next point.
5. Smaller selling space. On-line shopping, which will continue, has made the brick and mortar selling floor smaller. Or potentially smaller, since there is a lower productivity in that space. Smart retailers will downsize and adjust their space to keep shopping safe, protect selling costs, or even repurpose some areas (see above).
6. Diversify. I could see better productivity through diversification. For instance, the addition of larger sizes in lingerie or women’s apparel. Also, the addition of lifestyle apparel can add to sales volume and give customers more reasons to buy more.
7. Think global, act local. It is easy for stores to reflect local tastes and local colors in apparel by leveraging all the customer data they regularly capture. It requires special marketing and merchandising to highlight the unique local merchandise and successfully be a local merchant despite the national character of the chain, but it can pay off in stronger customer ties that drive repeat sales.
8. Shopping appointments. The importance of providing special care will not go away. The Business of Fashion says that Zoom and Facetime enabled customers to have private sessions. Shoppers cannot get the same service when shopping on-line. Mikimoto, a Manhattan jeweler, plans to invest in clientele services by better connecting store associates with shoppers. Such personal service, offered remotely or in-store, will be appreciated by customers and can drive higher spending. It will also allow stores to better manage staffing and merchandise handling. Nordstrom’s
9. The store as a social meeting place. As I mentioned above, store space will change, and stores who find innovative ways to use their non-selling space will win. A Lazarus branch store had a meeting place outside their restrooms. Other stores use the restaurants for social meeting places. With proper safety guidelines, the store can be a social meeting place and become a community focus. Obviously, there is then opportunity that merchandise will be sold to the customers who spend leisure time in the store.
These new concepts reflect a commitment to offer customers both flexibility and more personalized attention. The same customer may want to come into a store and shop with an appointment one day and then use BOPIS the next time. Retailers must adapt and operate with new expectations.
It is likely that vaccinated customers will do a little more shopping. My recent survey indicated that many customers are very reluctant to go into back into big stores – and certainly not for extended time yet – despite their immediate needs. They are afraid that the coronavirus may reappear and that caution is still necessary. One cannot argue against personal fear, after people had been locked-up for over a year. However, an effort to assure shoppers of cleanliness and special precautions may help. Let me restate that such assurances and more convenient personalized support will determine which retailers survive.
I have seen estimates that 80,000 stores will close in the next five years. While I expect some closures as stores in weak locations may relocate to stronger mega malls, I believe that the major shakeout of stores has already occurred.
I believe the merchants who move swiftly will find more ways to attract customers; as long as they ensure their safety and offer shopping services they appreciate, they will return to shop.