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Five Areas of Focus for Branded Environments in 2022

By Miller Zell
  • Retail
  • Five Areas of Focus for Branded Environments in 2022

No one wanted the pandemic-induced uncertainty of 2020 and 2021 to endure into the new year. But the current combination of hope and uncertainty presents an opportunity.

Retailers, banks, restaurants and other types of branded environments that best react to evolving customer wants and needs amid this mix of optimism and worry will outshine their competition and increase their market share.

Sure, that’s always the case, challenging times or not. But delivering value and great experiences to engaged customers in 2022 and beyond includes notably different approaches to conventional targets compared to just three years ago.

So here are five areas worthy of special focus as we begin a new year.

Optimize every inch of store space, inside, outside & online

The rise of BOPIS during the pandemic showed that parking lots are no longer design and planning afterthoughts. Wayfinding is now nearly as critical outside the store as inside. Ensure your customers immediately understand how to get where they want to go as soon as they enter your space, including when they don’t plan to exit their automobiles.

Further, store interiors also are evolving to serve not only multiple paths to purchase but also to facilitate returns, problem resolution, delivery and regional inventory management.

Store design that is both engaging and purposeful will support a diversity of shopper journeys that often crisscross from in-person to online, sometimes multiple times.

For example, a customer may search online for a product but also want to see it and touch it in a store. And then, using the store’s app and/or a QR code attached to the shelf displaying the product, make the purchase online because of a preference for a different size, color or model, knowing that same-day or next-day delivery is available.

Easing friction for this scenario and others like it, both in-store and online, will foster customer connections.

Digital acceleration, data constraints and smart innovation

The past two years massively accelerated digital integration into retail, restaurants and most branded environments. That started with safety and convenience, but it’s morphed into a holistic part of customer expectations.

A willingness to nimbly experiment and innovate — something many businesses talked about before but didn’t follow through on — will be rewarded as the pandemic has reconfigured customer thinking about trying new things.

For example, live streaming. As one of many iterations of social commerce, it can accelerate conversion and drive loyalty.

“Live Streaming is already a quickly growing market, projected to reach nearly $224 billion USD by 2028,” Amir Kabbara, Director of Product for Shopify, told Forbes.

The best digital solutions are purposeful, solve customer and associate pain points and check the boxes on measurable ROIs that matter most. They improve operational efficiency, create more engaging and informative experiences and upgrade customer data insights.

Ah, data collection. That might be a fraught issue going forward. Most notably, Apple recently started requiring all apps it supports to adopt an AppTrackingTransparency framework, so apps must ask for users’ permission to track them or access their devices’ advertising identifiers.

With tighter privacy protections and filters, how do the data gatekeeping rules affect personalization and customer relationships in general? What are some ways to barter for information with customers that facilitate permission from them?

These are important questions to ask and answer.

Happy associates, better bottom line

The so-called “Great Resignation” was a big story in 2021, with retail, hotel and restaurant workers leading a long line of those leaving jobs — a record 4.5 million in November alone.

The larger meaning? While a great “customer experience” is the prime directive for businesses, “associate experience” isn’t far behind. And they are intertwined and influence each other, positively or negatively.

This isn’t just about wages and benefits, either. This is about creating a fun, interesting and rewarding working environment. That helps not only hiring and retention, but it also inevitably becomes part of a business’s public reputation. 

So when refreshing your branded environment and improving your digital integration, don’t ignore the intersection between customer and associate experience. Make them both better.

Trust, values, sustainability

The above point about valuing associates connects to focus No. 4: Doing the right thing is good for businesses and, by the way, also good for the bottom line. Customers care about transparency, sustainability, corporate responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion.

As Edelman’s report noted in its 2020 “Trust Barometer”: “Brands that act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large will reinforce their expertise, leadership and trust and immeasurably strengthen the bond they have with consumers.”

In its 2021 report, Edelman added that, amid an “epidemic of misinformation,” businesses are “not only the most trusted institution among the four studied, but [they are] also the only trusted institution with a 61 percent trust level globally, and the only institution seen as both ethical and competent.”

The conscious consumer is real, and businesses that emphasize values and corporate responsibility will build customer loyalty.

Innovation includes crisis management plans

Many experts believe COVID-19 won’t be a generational one-off. While everyone is hoping we avoid another global pandemic, it’s critical that businesses that manage public environments develop a crisis plan that incorporates relevant learnings from the past two years.

This plan needs to anticipate supply chain issues, front-line associate challenges, in-store protocols and difficulties with unhappy and even combative customers.

Brick & mortar retail, bank branches, QSR franchises, grocery, convenience stores, college campuses and other public environments were forced to make significant changes on the fly when the pandemic began. Some of those were temporary, but others will persist and even expand.

Understanding the present and evolving circumstances is important, as is being ready to mobilize as efficiently as possible should another such crisis occur.

What that ultimately means is there will be plenty of opportunities to innovate and meet and exceed customer expectations now and into the future, whatever it might hold.

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