Are Retailers Ready for the Return to In-Person Shopping?
At its best, shopping is aspirational. Who doesn’t daydream about arriving home clutching bulging bags full of clothes, gadgets or other goodies from their favorite store? During the pandemic, we romanticized in-person shopping even as we placed online orders. Now that we’re all getting vaccinated, consumers are eager to get out for some real-world retail therapy.
In fact, 50 percent of U.S. consumers say they’re planning to spend more, and analysts are forecasting a big uptick in retail foot traffic. There’s a catch, however: as consumers step out into the post-pandemic world, they’re finding that in-person shopping isn’t living up to their expectations. Instead of glamor and style, people are being met with crumpled heaps of clothes, bare shelves, dirty floors, and poorly trained staff.
Why are stores looking so shabby? The answer is clear: retailers pivoted to digital during the pandemic but didn’t do enough to retain the people and know-how needed to deliver compelling in-person experiences. Now, as they scale up their in-person operations once more, retailers are struggling to train staff and re-establish the processes needed to sustain retail excellence.
Getting Back on Track
To get back on track, retailers will have to bring digital innovations back into the brick-and-mortar world. Online retail is built upon digital connectivity, the use of data, and operational streamlining. Now we need similar technologies to increase agility, drive accountability, and level up consumer experiences in physical retail.
Consider the simplest tool used by retail locations: the humble checklist. Stores use checklists to track everything, from bathroom inspections to absenteeism. For the most part, these checklists are handled using pen and paper. That means they’re easily lost, damaged or ignored. Worst of all, it means the insights locked away in these lists rarely travel beyond the clipboard to which they’re fastened.
By digitizing these checklists, we can integrate them into employees’ workflows. For example, a worker’s employer-issued mobile device might nudge them if they miss a chore, prompt them when it’s time to restock shelves or inspect bathrooms, or congratulate them if they’re staying ahead of schedule and working efficiently. The result: a slick, fully paperless experience that delivers more accountability, fewer crumpled clothes or dirty displays, and happier customers.
Engagement is Key
Of course, checklists are only the beginning. Mobile devices and apps can also create new opportunities for in-the-flow-of-work training and communication, with new hires using micro-learning tools to figure out unfamiliar tasks ranging from folding T-shirts to managing returns and ship-to-store processes.
All this adds up to a better customer experience, of course. But it also adds up to a better employee experience, and that’s just as important. According to a recent survey my company conducted, many retail workers — especially younger employees — feel unfulfilled and neglected, but seven out of 10 say better digital tools would help them feel more engaged and valued.
To give consumers the engaging experiences they’ve been missing over the past year, retailers need to put smiles back on the faces of their frontline employees. Digital tools can make retail work more rewarding, more engaging, and more fun — and that, in turn, makes it easier to retain the talented workers who deliver amazing experiences for your customers.
Connecting the Dots
Communication and connectivity matter to employers as well as employees. By putting smarter tools at employees’ fingertips, you’re creating a new source of data that’s far richer and more accessible than anything you can glean from a clipboard. In the post-pandemic era, those insights have never been more important.
Consumer behavior is currently undergoing a seismic shift, and retailers urgently need ways to capture clear insights about exactly what shoppers want. However, the pandemic has also forced many retailers to use fewer area managers to cover larger regions, making it harder to connect the dots and gain visibility into new trends and purchasing patterns.
By using digital tools to monitor inventory across multiple stores, and videos and photos to quickly share information, managers can coordinate operations and maintain higher standards across a larger area. Best practices or effective promotions from one store can be more easily replicated across a whole region. This can be done using apps to capture and surface insights to regional managers and rapidly feed those learnings back out to store managers and frontline teams.
The Tipping Point
The bottom line is that the retail sector now stands at a vital inflection point. Online shopping was already eating into real-world sales before COVID-19 struck, and that trend has only been exacerbated by the events of the past 16 months. There’s a real risk that if we disappoint returning shoppers with shabby, run-down retail experiences, they’ll simply retreat to the online shopping habits they developed during the pandemic.
That could be a significant headache for retailers. We’ve already seen many flagship department stores on high-end retail strips close and be replaced by mid-market chains. That’s a potentially troubling trend because it speaks to the way that in-person retail is becoming practical and task-oriented instead of aspirational and experience-driven.
To put things right, retailers need to create inviting spaces where customers can come not just to spend money, but to wander, window-shop, and dream. That starts with eliminating grime and hiccups and enforcing premium quality across the board. To wow consumers, retailers need to create the disciplined compliance needed to deliver consistent, on-brand experiences at every single customer touchpoint. Every shelf should be organized and well-stocked; every employee well trained.
Achieving that isn’t easy, especially in the wake of a pandemic that has robbed many stores of talent and experience. That’s why we need to embrace new methods and processes and give our teams the digital tools they need to shine. It’s by supporting our employees, and giving them the tools they need, that we’ll be able to remind consumers just how much they love the in-person shopping experience.
Eric Rosenthal is the senior vice president of sales at digital workplace platform YOOBIC.
Related story: Omnichannel: The Unlikely Savior of Physical Retail
Eric Rosenthal is the SVP of Sales at digital workplace platform YOOBIC. He has over two decades of experience driving sales growth for high growth SaaS companies including CrowdTwist, Pictela, and Emissary.io. Eric comes to YOOBIC from BlueSky Revenue Group, where he specialized in helping European firms develop Revenue and GTM strategies for the North American market.