Like Classrooms, Retail Takes a Hybrid Approach This Back-to-School Season
COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on many sectors. Consumers are continuing to shift priorities and spending habits as they adjust to new realities. Across the country, children are back to school in many different forms. Back-to-school marks the second busiest season of the year for retailers; an event that's only superseded by the holidays. This year, it's projected that consumers will spend a record high as they prepare to return to learning — whether in-person, virtual or both.
While spending is estimated to be at an all-time high, the ways that consumers are shopping continue to evolve and so, too, have their options. Similar to schools, the retail industry is currently offering consumers three shopping options this fall: online, in-person and hybrid.
This year, the retail industry has experienced an uptick in e-commerce, driven by both necessity as a result of mandated closures as well as people avoiding public places. The need for e-commerce options was emphasized when stay-at-home orders were implemented across the country, leaving consumers with limited shopping alternatives. However, the demand for products combined with a reduced workforce due to social distancing orders caused shipment facilities and carriers to incur major delays, ultimately resulting in consumers receiving orders days or weeks after they anticipated. These unexpected delays led many consumers to seek out other shopping models that offer shorter lead times.
When in-person retail stores and shopping centers reopened, PREIT properties nationwide experienced an influx of visitors, with many consumers waiting in line for shopping centers to open. The shift to in-person shopping once retail stores reopened can be attributed to consumers wanting to run errands and get out of the house following the stringent stay-at-home orders, the delays in e-commerce shopping at this time, and the desire to experience many products in person. And while many are relieved to be exploring their new normal, we're seeing that there's a growing demand for hybrid shopping options that can be more efficient for the on-the-go consumer.
Hybrid shopping such as curbside pickup and personal shoppers have become go-to models for many consumers that crave instant gratification and efficiency. Many mall owners and operators, including PREIT, have pivoted and expanded their offerings to include additional “shop online, pick up in-store” options in an effort to support both consumers and their retailers. However, PREIT was the first to innovate a way to bring the experience of their properties to consumers’ homes.
PREIT is known for curating experiences for consumers through entertainment, dining, retail and community offerings. However, as capacity limitations continued and consumers acted cautiously in re-entering public spaces, the demand for hybrid offerings gained momentum. This invited PREIT to create a way to bring the collection of brands offered at the mall to the homes of consumers across the country, while supporting its retailers.
This proactive review of the consumer landscape pushed PREIT to create a first-of-its kind offering from a mall owner and operator: a surprise pack called sMALL Surprises, just in time for back-to-school but perfect as a gift at any time of the year. sMALL Surprises marks PREIT’s first foray into the e-commerce space, bridging online and offline shopping channels to better support both its customers and tenants. The blending of physical and digital in the modern retail environment has been critical to success, particularly as the industry continues to evolve and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each sMALL Surprise contains a mix of items, including a selection of sensory toys/games, trendy accessories, sanitizing necessities, activity cards, stickers, and a few cool school supplies. Consumers can visit SmallSurprises.Shop to take a short quiz that helps a professional stylist create a curated surprise pack from PREIT mall tenants. Once customized, the pack is delivered direct-to-consumer anywhere in the United States.
The inclusion of products from various mall tenants in the program creates a new stream of sales for stores, as well as drives awareness and brand recognition. For shoppers, the pack creates an element of surprise during a stressful season with hand-selected products at a discount, and mall offerings they may not have otherwise sought out. In addition, the initiative offers shoppers the benefit of a mall’s collection of brands from the comfort of their home, particularly for time-strapped families.
Since launching just two weeks ago, sMALL Surprises has brought new business to over a dozen retailers in PREIT’s portfolio, and served consumers around the country. While launched in connection with encouraging some fun and surprise during the back-to-school shopping season, the versatility of this offering allows it to be applied to various gifting seasons throughout the year, with a limited-time Fall surprise pack set to launch in late September and holiday plans on deck.
sMALL Surprises is just one example of how all companies need to innovate. Mall owners, in particular, can pivot to create a new business model with their retailers and consumers in mind in order to pave the way for the future of retail.
Joseph F. Coradino is CEO of PREIT, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that owns and manages innovative properties at the forefront of shaping consumer experiences through the built environment.