The retail world, like everything else, is different than it was a month ago. Thousands of retailers have been forced to close brick-and-mortar operations as social distancing orders to combat COVID-19 took effect. Consumers, shut indoors across the country, have changed the way they shop and interact with retail brands. As stay at home orders are extended through April and into May, new consumer habits are being formed and retailers are looking at ways to reach consumers in the short-term and trying to understand what will resonate when the doors are fully open again. The one thing all experts agree on is change.
“Patterns and trends that existed before we went into this disruption will be accelerated as a result,” Matthew Shay, NRF President and CEO recently told MSNBC. Explaining that the categories most likely to shift are digital engagement, online behavior and fulfillment.
The retail and fashion futurists who spoke to WWD, echoed that sentiment. “It’s very likely we will see shifts in consumer behavior that could be long-term,” noted Douglas Stephens, founder of the advisory firm Retail Prophet.
What can retailers do today and how can they plan for a successful long-term recovery?
Promote a Clear Policy
For retailers that are currently open or those who anticipate opening on an abbreviated schedule in the short-term, make guidelines clear. Post opening hours, special considerations including if a face mask or gloves are required to enter the store and make note of product limits on your website and mobile apps. Make it easy for consumers to contact you, whether that’s via a website link or phone number.
In the immediate timeframe, retailers who can open their doors are trying out ways to manage crowd control. Some are limiting one or two shoppers per household (as opposed to taking the whole family along), while others are forming lines outside. We’ve also noticed an uptick in retailers who are asking customers to make a pre-scheduled appointment prior to arrival.
Whatever the policy, make sure it is visible and distributed widely.
Remove Friction from Digital to Physical Experiences
Most retailers already have transformation projects underway that aim to create a more streamlined omnichannel process from first touch to sale and beyond. The disruption created by the pandemic has introduced more consumers to digital channels as they shop and browse from the confines of their own homes. Many are trying out delivery services and BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store) or curbside pickup for the first time.
According to recently released data from Adobe Analytics, BOPIS and curbside pickup, increased, with BOPIS rates shooting up 62% between Feb. 24 and March 21 of this year compared to the same period in 2019.
While product shortages and shipping delays may cause some immediate consumer headaches, this is where brands can shine and take the lead when it comes to customer experience. Those that put customer-first strategies and technology in place now can expect to see a lasting positive effect on customer loyalty and revenue in the long-term.
Add Online Scheduling to Continue Social Distancing
We may lack a crystal ball, but it’s highly likely that some form of social distancing will linger for months once the more severe stay-at-home orders abate. To help ease the transition period, consider adding or ramping-up intelligent online scheduling to manage customer flow and expectations. It’s assumed consumers will be warry of large crowds in the immediate post-Coronavirus atmosphere, and scheduling is one way of demonstrating how your brand is keeping their safety needs in mind. And as consumer preferences have shifted quickly, it’s a way to get insight into what your consumer wants and needs before they even enter the store.
Enabling customer scheduling also helps prepare employees. The retail workforce has faced its own challenges in the last few months. Giving employees more visibility into who they are meeting with when helps a workforce in transition be best positioned to welcome customers. It will also address employees’ safety and crowd control concerns.
Focus on Personalization and Innovation
Once consumers can go out again, will they flood into store branches, or will temporary digital habits become more permanent? Brands will need to consider creative options to get people back into the store while creating the excitement and sense and of community that has lacked during the quarantine.
The impact that younger consumers have made by demanding more authenticity and social responsibility from brands is anticipated to grow among a wider demographic. Holding VIP events, group classes or charitable meetups that mesh brand awareness with corporate social responsibility is one way to reinvent the consumer experience with added personalized engagement.
We know that before COVID-19, customers complained that the personalized experiences they had online was typically not repeated during in-store visits. Take the time now to ensure that when customers do come back into the store, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and respond quickly to requests for assistance.