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Evolving Public Spaces in a Post-COVID-19 World

By Miller Zell

It’s easy to say that the only certainty right now is uncertainty, as the societal reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic so far has not gone well. We still don’t know the potential endurance of the pandemic, nor the length of the accompanying economic downturn.

But there is one more certainty. At some point, we will re-emerge.

And then there will be a new, post-COVID-19 customer journey within public spaces. So purveyors of such environments, whether they be retail, restaurants, banks or college campuses, need to develop an optimized version of what that will look like for their customers.

Most businesses that remained open responded at least adequately to the sudden need to ensure safety, both for customers and associates. But enhanced cleaning, plexiglass barriers, contact-less interactions and floor graphics and other in-store signage that indicate a 6-foot distance will be standard operating procedure for the foreseeable future.

The more strategically relevant issue is what will become permanent, or at least long term in our quickly evolving world?

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for innovative thinking because it’s clear that the customers trudging out from 2020 will be different from the carefree — if nonetheless demanding — ones of 2019.

According to McKinsey, more than 75 percent of consumers have experimented with a different shopping behavior during the crisis, including trying new brands and places to shop. In a survey of global consumers, EY found that while 40 percent of people are eager to get back to normal, 50 percent of consumers still expect their lives to change significantly in the long term.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Retail Advisors’ survey  of U.S. retail and restaurant executives found that 83 percent believed “retail and dining will be changed forever.”

While surveys of executives and consumers are valuable, they are not definitive by any measure. Fact is, the goals and methods of savvy brands haven’t really changed. They seek to evolve and optimize their spaces based on deep insights into their customers and a strategically developed nimbleness when it comes to innovation. They already understand how quickly the marketplace can change and that building a sense of community and connection with customers is imperative. They know that authenticity, a sense of purpose and sustainability are important to customers.

They also will know that different generations will react differently as we emerge from the pandemic and that understanding and serving all of them will be critical to stay ahead of competitors.

Much of what COVID-19 has accelerated was already in the marketplace — flexible fulfillment options, AR/VR, touchless checkout, etc. — but crisis increased adoption by consumers and prioritization by businesses.

After convincing consumers your spaces are safe and that offering them increases convenience, businesses need to purposefully refresh their environments and make them so engaging and useful that customers can’t stay away. The challenge remains the same — creating great experiences for diverse customers — even if the culture of public spaces is different.

We will see the acceleration of the much-discussed shift toward fewer stores, restaurants and bank branches but better stores, restaurants and bank branches. It might make sense to seek out a partner for strategic design, digital integration and precise execution during that winnowing process. Just saying.

We’ll also see outreach from brands trying to rebuild a sense of community after months of social distancing. That could start with initiatives and events that don’t focus on selling but on increasing brand awareness. It’s fair to say Walmart getting into the drive-in movie business is more about building customer affinity than selling tickets.

Yes, the migration to online sales likely will continue, at least to a point. As Cambridge Retail Advisors noted, “The pandemic has accelerated that curve and taken perhaps 3-5 years out of the digital evolution.” Still, that growth will “level off at 30-40 percent of total sales vs. 10-15 in 2019.”

Most consumers will again seek out public spaces. They’ll want to touch products in stores, eat at restaurants with family and friends, talk to an expert about banking needs and hang out at college student unions. Those that best meet their clients’ or customers’ environmental needs will win the marketplace.

On a more sober side, businesses also need to develop a plan for potential second waves or even the next pandemic. That means strategically learning from the COVID-19 experience, stockpiling an inventory of safety gear for stores and associates, creating clear capacity management plans and developing alternative supply chain and inventory management plans.

It’s difficult to put a positive spin on the present situation, but it’s also not naïve to point to our native resilience. We’ve endured wars, depressions, recessions and volatile politics before. One of the revealing numbers from the McKinsey survey was the lack of long-term economic pessimism.

So businesses need to simultaneously manage the crisis and plan for the future.


Editor's note: This story was published in July of 2020.

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