The New Reality for Non-Essential Retail: Can the Store Experience Survive?
COVID-19 triggered a dramatic shift in how we shop: stores deemed “non-essential” were closed, and stores that remained open were significantly changed. Going to a grocery store was suddenly high effort: standing in long lines to get in, wearing masks, and keeping a strict distance from other customers.
As retailers open non-essential stores, these restrictions may feel unsettling. In an experience intended to be enjoyable, customers are used to taking their time. Shopping for things like clothes, cosmetics or toys is normally an escape, but in the near term, consumers may find that these experiences aren't as fun as they used to be.
To keep customers engaged, retailers must offer experiences that not only keep people safe and adapt to changing conditions, but also create moments of delight.
Building Trust Through Safety
Beyond restricting the number of people in a store, keeping them distanced, and controlling the flow of traffic, several retailers are heightening safety measures. At Sephora and Costco, for example, customers are encouraged to wear masks. Apple and American Eagle Outfitters are taking customers’ temperatures at the door. Making hand sanitizer available at store entrances and exits will be the norm, and stores will be sanitized regularly. For consumers who feel anxious about visiting stores, the actions taken to protect them may win their loyalty.
The Acceleration of Contactless Shopping
Retailers have been experimenting with contactless shopping for years. For example, the Amazon Go store and Sam’s Club's Scan & Go app both reimagined the store experience. In the interest of safety, COVID-19 accelerates the opportunity for contactless shopping. Understanding where touch occurs along the shopping journey and replacing it with touch-free options will be key — from pulling up product information on a smartphone (reducing the need to handle products); to apps that alert associates of customer queries; to payment through an app or tap; even robotics that bring items out to customers. In warehouses, Walmart and Kroger have been exploring automation and robotics for some time, which can further reduce human contact.
Augmented reality (AR) can bring a sense of discovery and play to the store experience, while enabling the customer’s safety. AR wayfinding in stores can direct consumers to items as quickly as possible, while serving up savings opportunities as they shop. Virtual try-on technology for cosmetics, jewelry and apparel can cut down on browsing time, while also helping consumers discover new products. In showroom environments, sales associates or even robots can source items safely from the back of the store. Throughout, digital tools connected to a customer’s profile can enable smart recommendations, getting the shopper to the right products faster, while creating genuine value.
Repurposing the Store Format
The ability to responsively adjust a store’s format could be a lifeline for those retailers with omnichannel offerings. Micro-fulfillment centers allow for a portion of a store’s real estate to be optimized for store associates to pick items for online orders. Dark stores enable retailers to fulfill online orders efficiently and get items to customers quickly, dedicating entire buildings to e-commerce.
Personal Shopping, Virtually
To better support online shopping, retailers may look to the grocery picking model, in which sales associates choose items on behalf of customers. In non-essential retail categories like clothing or cosmetics, a virtual personal shopper could assist customers who want advice selecting their items, as well as suggest items based on customers’ profiles. Through these personal shoppers, stores could deliver a high level of service from a distance, keeping customers (and associates) safe.
An Uncertain Path Full of Opportunity
So much of the future is unknown. Assuming stores continue to focus on safety, will people become impatient with the new reality? Will they turn to online shopping more and more? As retailers get better at serving customers through digital channels, it will be interesting to see if people gravitate online and stay there, or if the enjoyable escape of going into a physical store will prevail.
Eiko Kawano is group experience director at digital consultancy Publicis Sapient.
Eiko Kawano is Group Experience Director at digital consultancy Publicis Sapient.
Eiko has been creating digital experiences since 1998. She currently leads the Experience Design practice for Publicis Sapient, and is a member of Publicis Sapient’s Retail Experience leadership team. She has an extensive background in Customer Experience strategy, journey mapping, and customer research, and loves working with brands to find meaningful ways to reach people. As the Experience Lead for the Walmart Canada account, Eiko helped to lead the transformation of Walmart’s digital customer experience through a collaborative design practice that kicked off in 2012, launching Walmart’s first responsive website, first online grocery offering, and first mobile shopping app in the years since.
Eiko believes that building empathy for customers, clients, and team members always generates the best results, and that diverse perspectives are key to effective problem-solving. She has a particular interest in the intersection of data and design, and applies a data-driven approach to customer journey modelling, design, and experience optimization.