The Covid-19 pandemic shutdown provoked anxiety, frustration and uncertainty. The reopening, at least initially, won’t be much different, though it includes a clear element of hope.
The essential businesses that never closed established new standards for those now reopening: social distancing, exacting demands for sanitation and hygiene and detailed regulations for contact avoidance and crowd/traffic control. This “new normal” for how public spaces are managed will continue to evolve, whether these initiatives are for retailers, banks, schools, restaurants, universities or sports arenas and stadiums.
What might be less clear for those contemplating a reopening is the optimal way to adopt these new standards so they foster the best possible customer and associate experience. Finding that will require detailed analysis, strategic messaging and a high degree of emotional intelligence.
The first step is a thorough evaluation of your associate and customer journey through your environment, starting with parking and not ending until they re-enter their car to return home. You must follow the customer and associate view and contact points through myriad potential pathways and how you meet their various needs, from hand sanitizing to merchandising methods to wayfaring to social distancing to physical touchpoints to methods of payment and checkout procedures.
There will be fundamental material needs to get started. Miller Zell has provided its clients:
- Floor graphics, posters and other in-store signage that indicate a 6-foot distance
- Customizable displays & signage to maximize visibility of urgent messaging
- Protective shields at points of service like cashier stations, pharmacy counters or teller windows
- Custom-branded hand sanitizer stations for retailers, restaurants and banks
- Self-checkout kiosks and other self-help stations
- Outdoor stencils to designate store policy or define areas
- Clear window and door signage to direct traffic and answer questions to ease the confusion and traffic of BOPIS
While clear messaging is important, it’s also critical to reassure, and that means communicating with kindness instead of being stern or authoritarian. Customers in some cases will be anxious or confused about expectations — masks or no masks? One- or two-way aisles? — so aim for friendly or even humorous reminders, such as “Thanks for supporting safety by wearing a mask!” Or “You look great in that mask! Thanks for wearing it!”
Don’t fear creativity either. A restaurant in South Carolina placed blowup dolls at tables to help customers adopt social distancing guidelines — and get a good laugh.
You can help your cause by making sure your regulations are related in a clear, positive and reassuring way at every available customer touchpoint, such as email, text messages or through your mobile app. Further, your website should clearly delineate what you’re doing to protect customers and associates and what your expectations are for customers.
Liberty Station Restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., provides a good example with a link on its website to a PDF announcing, “Our Promise to You” and “What You Can Do to Help.”
This sort of communication expresses appreciation to customers, which helps build brand loyalty. Delta sent an email to customers from CEO Ed Bastian that explained its new safety measures but also included the line, “I personally extend my heartfelt gratitude to you for booking your upcoming trip and for trusting Delta to safely connect you to the most important places and people in your life.”
Customers also may be concerned about checkout procedures, whether that’s about using cash or POS keypads or touchscreens or tools for reading barcodes during self-checkout. Communicating alternatives will be important, such as contactless cards, mobile apps or mobile wallets. Hygiene and sanitation procedures must be set for associates and related to reassure customers. Further, investments in the latest antimicrobial products, including films for touchscreens, are worth investigating.
Yes, reopening is complicated, and not just logistically. It will be emotionally complicated for customers and associates, too. According to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 66 percent of Americans don’t think their states should reopen retail stores yet. That noted, a vocal percentage is protesting the shutdown and demanding an end to stay-at-home orders.
That suggests store policies could annoy some customers — masks, returns or exchanges, purchasing limits, etc. — and they could take that out on associates. Extra training and clear policies about how to deal with escalating situations will be necessary.
Finally, there is the chance of a “second wave” of COVID-19, most particularly in the winter. That, of course, could affect the holiday season. While it’s worrisome to think about, it’s also a possibility that needs to be anticipated and planned for if another shutdown is enacted.
B8ta created “ShopSafely,” which it calls “an initiative to keep you up-to-date with retailer policies during these uncertain times.”
Miller Zell also set up a “Health and Safety” page.
To summarize, here are four action items:
- Clear, courteous and on-brand messaging
- Thoughtfully planned out checkout procedures
- Carefully considered protocols for customer hesitancy and/or pushback
- Strategic preparation for potential second wave
As retailers, banks and other purveyors of public spaces prepare to reopen, there’s a need to pivot and innovate, adopting new standards and reassuring customers and associates. This is a challenging time, but it also can be an opportunity to stand out and build brand loyalty.
Editor's note: This story was published in May of 2020.