How Retailers Can Reopen While Reimagining Their Brick-and-Mortar Experience
In recent years, omnichannel strategies started to breathe new life into brick-and-mortar retail, setting up 2020 to be a year of growth. And then, without much warning, the pandemic closed thousands of stores for months. Suddenly, brands were left with only existing e-commerce capabilities and their imaginations — and forced to adapt quickly.
The abrupt pivot to online retail during COVID-19 has delivered mixed results for retail brands. For some, like the modernized department store Neighborhood Goods, these changes prompted digital innovation, while for others, like J.C. Penney, the transition accelerated their decline. Now, retailers are in transition again as stores reopen in most U.S. states. They face a mountain of new challenges, including wary customers and a laundry list of in-store safety considerations.
Brands realize that shoppers enjoy the convenience of e-commerce — the challenge becomes upgrading online experiences without losing loyal customers or damaging their in-store environments. Finding success in this era requires carefully coordinating online efforts with brick-and-mortar experiences and focusing on experiential shopping.
As your brand navigates these challenges, winning over customers will require a higher degree of differentiation and innovation at every turn. Here’s how to keep your stores safe and successful as we enter the next chapter of an unpredictable year.
Don’t Forget the In-Store Experience
Pre-pandemic, a strong digital experience was important for most brands. Now, it’s an absolute necessity. An integrated, seamless experience is Retail 101 in 2020, allowing you to keep customers engaged whether they choose to shop through your mobile app, browse your website, or venture into stores.
However, despite a cultural shift to e-commerce over the past few months, online shopping should never completely supplant the in-store experience. Given that customers spend more money when they visit a store, brands should use their online experiences to get customers back in stores safely. That could mean reintroducing physical retail in ways that integrate more fully with online experiences. For example, implementing return drop-offs or curbside pickup for online orders can be the first step to a renewed physical retail experience. Neighborhood Goods has made this change, building out its online store and converting stores into pickup centers.
It’s important to ensure in-store experiences remain exciting and convenient for customers, while also thinking outside the box. For example, cosmetics leader Sephora has found a way to fuse its Beauty Insider loyalty program with in-person benefits. In addition to discounts, members will be able to exchange points for exclusive experiences such as one-one-one meetups with brand founders or appointments with skin care experts after social distancing restrictions are lifted. Whether it’s the promise of future consultations or deals on item pickups, connecting online shopping to brick-and-mortar benefits ensures ongoing store traffic and encourages customers to keep purchasing.
Educate and Train Staff Thoroughly
Part of ensuring an online offering doesn’t replace or cannibalize in-store sales is providing incredible customer service. For many traditional retailers, improved customer service requires helping staff to adjust to omnichannel procedures. To ensure a smooth, integrated experience, staff need training in all digital processes so customers experience consistency, whether they’re shopping in person or online. And with stores reopening, the need for training also extends to new COVID-19 guidelines designed to keep employees and customers safe. As brands roll out these trainings, it's imperative that they stay connected to their employees and understand, from their perspective, what's working well and what needs to be adjusted. Brands that listen to their employees and quickly adapt to that feedback will build loyalty with their employees and provide a better environment for them to deliver exceptional customer service.
Staff should, at a minimum, be able to immediately check inventory across locations, easily process returns, and access account information across touchpoints. Eliminating friction between online and in-store experiences is the first step to ensuring customers aren’t frustrated by disjointed interactions. To further ease customers transition back to in-person shopping, stores should also enforce strict sanitization, social distancing, and mask-wearing protocols. These extra steps can help protect not just your customers’ health, but their peace of mind.
Stores can learn a lot from Sephora’s investment in its staff’s talent and expertise. By leaning on employees to create an additional resource that differentiates in-store and online offerings, brands set themselves apart, giving customers an interaction they can’t get in the mail and, eventually, a reason to return to brick-and-mortar stores. From Apple’s Genius Bar to Lush’s in-store demonstrations, offering unique and valuable store experiences makes customers more likely to venture offline.
Listen to the Voice of the Customer
Any big transformation, whether a rebrand, new website or store reopening, has the potential to delight existing customers or ruffle some feathers. The best way to avoid the latter? Listen to the customer and allow them to "co-create" these experiences with you.
That starts with understanding customer expectations. You need to ask yourself the following questions: What is our brand promise? Why do customers choose our brand over another brand? Discounted prices and a wide product variety may be the go-to answer for department stores, but refining this understanding is key to successfully fusing web and brick-and-mortar offerings.
By asking the right questions and soliciting direct feedback, you can gain a constant understanding of customer satisfaction, preferences and potential frustrations. When you combine this feedback with indirect and inferred customer data, you can also gain a holistic view of the customer. Although this is always important, it’s especially relevant when a pandemic makes customers hesitant to shop in-store.
A More Resilient Future
The convergence of digital transformation and a global pandemic makes in-store innovation risky — but also more critical than ever. Depending on your approach, your brand could thrill current customers and attract new ones, or alienate your most loyal shoppers. By understanding your core strengths, educating employees and listening to customers, you can make the most of opportunities, navigate current challenges and achieve lasting resilience.
Andrew Park is the vice president of CX strategy and enablement at InMoment, an experience intelligence platform.
Related story: A Ranking of Retailers' In-Store Safety Readiness