Making COVID-19 Experiments a Seamless Experience: How to Succeed in Innovation and Rollout
2020 might have seemed like a year of forced innovation for retailers. But in truth, many were already experimenting with new channels and customer experiences before coronavirus entered the picture. What changed last year was widespread demand and fast-paced adoption.
Suddenly these experiments with customer experience — grab-and-go, BOPIS, contactless payments, dark stores — were in high demand and on the fast track to roll out locally, regionally and sometimes nationwide. Companies were accelerating retail concepts that once only lived on drawing boards and test labs.
COVID-19, without a doubt, prompted retailers to get the creative juices flowing to entice safety-conscious customers to shop their brands. And by now, the successful experiments have risen to the top and are quickly becoming a part of customers' expectations for the future.
2021 is an exciting year for retail as these innovative experiences become table stakes. While many brands continue to roll out new experiences and services, retailer leaders need to take a note from the success stories and consider a few best practices to ensuring these strategies go smoothly along the way.
Creativity Helps Meet Consumers Where They Are
A sampling of the innovations taking place include the adoption of more grab-and-go technology (think Amazon Go); in-store apps that decrease much-dreaded checkout times; self-serve stations that provide seamless, contactless experiences; and an increase in brick-and-mortar locations with smaller footprints.
For example, Walmart introduced an experimental checkout experience at a Supercenter in Fayetteville, Ark., where all lanes are gone, having been replaced with a full-service checkout experience. Shoppers can opt for self-checkout or have a “host” ring up and bag their items the old-fashioned way. It’s a concept where seamless, quickness and convenience come together.
And this year, Burger King will build newly designed restaurants in Miami, Latin America and the Caribbean that feature, among other things, pick-up lockers, a drive-in where guests will park their cars under solar-powered canopies and place their orders through the BK App by scanning a QR code, and a suspended kitchen and dining room above the drive-thru lanes to reduce the building footprint.
As these examples show, consumers continue to crave innovative, omnichannel options that include mobile ordering, curbside pickup, home delivery, BOPIS, and more. What was once a novelty with responses from consumers like “it's cool, I don't quite understand it” is now an expectation.
To stay competitive and meet them where they are, most retailers should think outside the proverbial box and create safe, innovative, seamless customer experiences.
Keep an Eye on the Future
While safety is the No. 1 concern for many shoppers right now, it’s important that innovations today have a place in the consumer experience of tomorrow. Though it may be hard to picture right now, consumers are social beings and will eventually want to spend more time on-site browsing and relishing the shopping experience, rather than getting in and getting out.
There are still many ways that technologies and strategies for a socially distant environment can further improve a post-COVID experience. And checkout is a great example of this, too.
Pre-pandemic, checkout was often a step in the shopping process that irked consumers. Long lines, malfunctioning self-checkout kiosks, and glitchy old-school payment terminals — to name a few — made it an unpleasant experience. The innovation surrounding COVID-19 has made the process more streamlined and, frankly, given people more options based on what their needs are. If they’re in a rush, curbside is king. If they’re there to browse, full-service self-checkout could win their loyalty. There’s now something for everyone at many retailers, and that may be the retail model of the future.
In short, as COVID starts to enter our rearview mirrors, strategies and designs that have worked well in the last year may still have an important role in the future. And as retailers push forward with rollouts, there are a few tactics to keep in mind.
Mind the 5 R's of Successful Retail Innovation
Innovation in 2021 is critical, but so, too, is adopting cost-efficient, scalable methodologies that allow for change. When approaching a rollout, keep these five R's in mind to keep your project on track:
- Look into customer demographics, surveys and focus groups, all of which can help strengthen the brand and focus on ways to change.
- By identifying potential pitfalls before embarking upon a new concept, pressure testing ideas, value engineering new designs and considering existing infrastructure, innovation will be more fiscally sound.
- To ensure scalability that doesn’t break the budget, take the time to prototype and test to ensure design and technology are replicable.
- Build in time for store tours, brand immersion and research, letting the findings create a story that guides proven and ongoing innovation.
- Meet shoppers based on today’s expectations and within the constraints of the organization. This enables a quicker and more efficient rollout across an array of store footprints, demographics, and high- or low-value locations.
Some innovations will be more successful than others. But neither success nor failure can happen without trying. An excerpt from a recent Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University article sums up nicely the need for innovation as it relates to the customer experience:
“ … A constantly changing environment means constant opportunities to learn and adapt. Eventually, as the dust of a new, post-COVID reality settles, the organizations that experimented will have many more tools at their disposal.”
Tom Ertler is the senior vice president and creative director at Miller Zell, a company that partners with retailers to create informative, engaging, entertaining and customer-centric experiences.
Related story: Retail Trends That Will Outlast the Pandemic