‘We’re All in it Together’ Attitude Drives Consumer Confidence in COVID-19
Despite the unprecedented challenges retailers are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, their resilience and determination is both impressive and encouraging.
As various parts of the country proceed through a phased reopening, retailers are challenged with opening their stores in a safe and efficient manner. As pressured as they may be to reopen quickly, taking the time to understand consumers’ state of mind as they venture back out into the world will help retailers identify ways to ease consumer anxiety; maximize shopper confidence; and stand out from competitors as a safe, reliable and caring partner.
Disclaimer: I'm not an in-store shopping expert/consultant. However, as the head of NAPCO Research (NAPCO Media is the parent company of Total Retail) and as a former Forrester research analyst, where I covered consumer product strategy, I’ve spent my career analyzing and interpreting consumer behavior and mind-sets to advise companies on how to anticipate and respond to their behaviors. In addition, I have my own COVID-19 shopping experiences to draw upon.
There are lots of great practical guides for retailers on how to reopen safely in order to protect shoppers and staff, comply with government regulations, and maximize in-store traffic flow. This article will not attempt to replicate those guides. Instead, it will offer retailers some food for thought in understanding what consumers might be experiencing as they venture back out into stores. This information should help retailers to reopen safely and confidently.
Anxious Shopper Syndrome
You don’t have to be a research analyst to know consumers are nervous about going back out into the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in an enclosed space such as a retail store. According to a consumer survey from Global Web Index, almost half of respondents say they will not return to stores “for some time” or “for a long time.” For those that have ventured out into stores, the furrowed brows on top of the masks and anxious looks in the eyes of most shoppers tells us all we need to know about what they're experiencing.
Shopping in-store is especially anxiety-provoking because of the following:
- Enclosed Spaces: Consumers find themselves in an enclosed space, possibly coming into close proximity with other shoppers who may not be wearing face masks.
- New In-Store Traffic Flow: Shoppers may be faced with a new, unfamiliar traffic flow.
- Payment Process/Contact With Staff: Shoppers may be anxious about coming in contact with staff and/or new payment procedures.
- Having Proper PPE: Consumers may not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves or hand sanitizer products.
At Total Retail, we're seeing retailers take many steps to prepare for reopening, including:
- evaluating contactless payments;
- training staff on new procedures;
- assessing in-store traffic flow;
- implementing curb-side pickup; and
- adding buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) programs.
One way a retailer can go through the reopening process is to "check items off the to-do list":
- Store signage: check.
- Staff training: check.
- Re-engineer in-store traffic flow: check.
Simply checking off items on the list isn't enough to make customers feel safe and comfortable, however. Consider the following personal example.
The ‘Checklist Reopen’ Shopping Experience Induces Anxiety
I recently shopped at a big-box retail store. I felt the familiar butterflies in my stomach as I walked into the store, and they increased as I passed shopper after shopper. Many of my fellow shoppers appeared to be suffering from ASF (anxious shopper face), in part because there was no staff or signage as I walked into the store explaining in-store safety rules and expectations.
When I finally found an associate to ask for help, the obviously harried employee impatiently told me to wait, that she was in middle of helping someone else. After locating the item I needed, I went to the checkout line. On the floor there were several boxes painted in cold, clinical gray colors, that said "STAND HERE," but the checkout line stretched down the aisle and it was unclear where to stand, or how to do so in a socially distanced and safe manner.
At checkout, I asked the associate if they accepted Apple Pay, but she said no.
Now, I know that it's still early in the reopening process and retailers will get better with time, but the entire experience left me feeling shaken and upset.
A Strategy for Reducing Shopper Anxiety
Psychology Today explains what will be obvious to most:
For most people, even those without a diagnosable anxiety disorder, uncertainty can trigger anxiety.
We all know and understand that to reduce the anxiety of uncertainty, two things can help: reduce uncertainty, and offer reassurance that we're not in it alone
A store reopening in the mode of “check the store reopening boxes” does neither.
Imagine if, instead of a do-the-minimum "check the boxes" store reopening process — which signals to the anxious shopper, “you’re on your own!” — a store reopened with a “we’re all in this together” attitude, which signals to the anxious shopper, “it’s scary out there, but we’ve got you covered.”
Instead of no signage, or a hastily printed piece of paper with coffee stains scotch-taped to the door, imagine a more permanent sign that welcomes consumers to the store, acknowledges the unusual situation we're all in, and invites them to take a complimentary mask, gloves or hand sanitizer.
Imagine clear and friendly signage throughout the store that helps shoppers know where to go and what to expect (thus reducing uncertainty anxiety). Imagine trained and calm staff, ready to help whenever needed. Imagine a checkout process that lets customers know contactless payment is an option, even providing instructions on how to quickly setup mobile payment solutions.
The table below summarizes the two store reopening approaches.
Taking the “we’re all in this together” approach is harder — it requires more thought, more cross-departmental coordination, and may cost more in the long run. But it also comes with clear short-term benefits, not to mention many long-term benefits as well, including building customer loyalty and developing a reputation for a safe and friendly place to shop.
It's also important to consider the very real possibility that many of these seemingly temporary changes to the in-store experience will become lasting changes. For instance, the current popularity of BOPIS may last long after the pandemic has receded, as shoppers will come to recognize the convenience of this fulfillment option. Similarly, the growing adoption of mobile payments in-store is a trend that was likely to happen regardless of COVID-19. Retailers that commit to fully implementing these changes during the reopening process stand to see long-term benefits in addition to the more urgent short-term benefits.
In this regard, the COVID pandemic may be an opportunity for the savvy retailer to distinguish itself from competitors. Indeed, a safe and trusting in-store experience with help from friendly in-store associates is an experience that a certain retailer that starts with "A" and ends in "mazon" can’t replicate, especially with ongoing out-of-stock and shipment delay challenges it continues to experience.
Although it's hard for consumers to predict precisely how they will respond post-pandemic, the data supports the contention that “we’re all in this together” retailers will reap long-term benefits. The Global Web Index survey shows that 56 percent of consumers surveyed say brands that can best meet their needs will resonate most long term. Thirty-eight percent further said that those companies that can demonstrate that they helped people during the pandemic will be considered most long term. As humans, we don’t need data to tell us that a retailer that treats its customers as though it cares about them and what they experience in its store is likely to fare better in the long term than those that don’t.
New Thinking for New Problems
The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we're all going through, and retailers have never before had to consider shoppers’ state of mind to this degree. Old thinking cannot be brought to bear to solve new problems, and despite a host of ongoing challenges, in order to grow customer loyalty, develop new customers, and grow their reputation during COVID-19, retailers must keep the anxious customer front and center in all of their decision making as they reopen stores.
Nathan Safran is vice president, Research for NAPCO Media, the parent company of Total Retail. Nathan is a former Forrester Research analyst with deep experience designing custom research solutions that solve client business problems.
NAPCO Research creates research and thought leadership for the retail industry. Market research is valuable for making strategic business decisions, solving challenges, and pursuing opportunities. The NAPCO Media research team surveys, analyzes and monitors critical trends related to the retail industry. To learn more about how the team can leverage its research and industry subject matter experts to support your organization's needs, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related story: 4 Important Steps to Reopening Retail
Nathan works with the subject matter experts across NAPCO’s brands to design research solutions that leverage NAPCO’s engage audiences and provides deep insight. Nathan is a frequent speaker at industry events and his research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Fortune Magazine.