An Overlooked Key to Gaining In-Store Shoppers' Confidence
Even before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, the brick-and-mortar retail industry was in trouble. Anchor tenants in malls were closing their doors, transforming once vibrant shopping centers into ghost towns. Independent retailers were struggling as they faced strong competition from online stores that didn’t have the high overhead of operating in expensive downtown areas. And even big-box stores — once seen as the future of retail — were shutting down. And then the pandemic hit, affecting almost every retail outlet in North America. It wasn’t just a perfect storm; it was a tsunami whose effects will be felt for decades.
In the wake of this calamity (there really is no other word to describe the last two years), those stores that managed to survive are now trying to figure out how to move forward in the face of continuing adversity. And while there's no one factor that will make shoppers return to local stores, one thing that's guaranteed is that people will avoid shopping in places where they don’t feel that their health and safety is a top priority. And considering COVID-19 is an airborne virus, one of the best ways retailers can demonstrate their commitment to health and safety is by providing incredibly clean air — and letting their customers know about it.
One of the great urban legends is that Las Vegas casinos pump pure oxygen into their gaming areas to keep people alert and awake so that they will stay longer and gamble (and lose) more. This actually isn’t true — if nothing else, pure oxygen is highly flammable — but it has been an enduring myth for decades. What's not a myth is that people want to know that they're breathing healthy, clean air, whether they're outside, in their homes, or in retail stores. This is where supplemental air purification systems can play a major role not only in improving air quality, but also in helping retailers demonstrate their commitment to health and wellness.
All retail stores have HVAC systems, but these are usually invisible to the general public. Shoppers don't really know how efficient they are at moving the air or if it will remove harmful particles. Before COVID, these are things literally nobody thought about. Now there's increased awareness of air purification systems, and sales for units have surged since the start of the pandemic. Having supplemental air systems in stores will give customers a visual cue that the retailer is protecting them from this virus and other potentially harmful particles like dust or air pollution. These systems can boost shopper confidence that the store is safe and could increase foot traffic and the amount of time a customer spends in-store. This type of confidence is critical as retailers work to bring shoppers back into their stores.
The important question, of course, is how to pick the right supplemental air system. The first thing to consider is the amount of air that needs to be cleaned. The good news is that these systems come in all shapes and sizes, meaning that no matter how big or small your store is, there's probably a system that will work for you.
Air purification is serious business, and it's not just about the optics. For example, large fans may help with ventilation, but they do absolutely nothing for overall air quality. Instead, savvy retailers should explore portable and fixed standalone units that actually remove particulates from the air by using HEPA filters. Superior systems include high-intensity ultraviolet chambers that can deactivate viruses and bacteria and ultimately destroy them. Not only does this provide a better experience for customers, but it's an approach that has been scientifically proven to reduce the presence of certain microbes that could be harmful if inhaled.
More importantly, many standard HVAC systems — even those with filters — don't necessarily make the air healthier. That's because cooling towers and other common elements can harbor harmful bacteria, meaning that the systems are making air quality worse. This may sound far-fetched, but in 1976 dozens of members of the American Legion died of a particularly virulent strain of pneumonia that spread through the ventilation system of the Philadelphia hotel where they were holding their conference. In fact, this event was the origin of the term "Legionnaires Disease," which is still a serious health issue.
There's no single magic bullet that's going to get consumers coming back to retail stores. There are literally hundreds of factors, ranging from traffic to convenience, that will dictate what the future of shopping will look like in the years and decades ahead. But forward-thinking merchants are already addressing how to make shoppers feel comfortable as North America emerges from the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the ways they're doing this is by making air quality a mission-critical part of their business.
Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air, a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems.
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Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air, a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems. The company’s products are used by thousands of organizations, including Major League Baseball clubs and NBA teams.