The COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in how we manage public spaces. First, there was an urgent reaction based almost entirely on safety and uncertainty. Then there was a fast-track evolution as shifting consumer sentiments and expectations revealed themselves.
What’s now apparent is that many changes will become long term or even permanent.
Several weeks ago, Miller Zell reviewed data from a number of sources regarding COVID-19 and its impact on shopping in brick-and-mortar locations as well as consumer feelings about retail. We edited and updated this research recently and found a notable consistency.
People continue to be concerned about the spread of COVID-19. Globally, 66 percent of people say they will continue to avoid busy places, according to Kantar. Many Americans (73 percent) are waiting for milestones (i.e., a vaccine or government removing restrictions) before they engage in non-essential out-of-home activities, and this percentage has increased over the last few weeks, according to McKinsey & Company.
McKinsey also found that approximately 70 percent of Americans believe COVID-19’s impact on their personal routines will last more than another four months, while 50 percent believe that impact will last more than six months.
So what does this mean for retailers? Triangulating these and other numbers, we’ve arrived at five initiatives retailers should focus on right now that will pay off well into the future.
- Safety of customers and associates comes first.
Customers and associates are now more accustomed to the new normal of pandemic shopping, so they will be more aware of and willing to follow pandemic-prescribed procedures. That knowledge also will elevate expectations of hygiene, distancing, mask wearing and associate behavior. Failure to meet expectations and a casualness about safety could cost you shoppers.
At the same time, associates need support. They need to believe they are valued and safe. Further, they need detailed protocols for how to handle difficult situations with customers who are resistant to store rules, such as mask wearing and social distancing. It’s possible that the enforcement of these rules will become more — not less — challenging over the next weeks and months.
And, of course, the fear of a pandemic second wave is a worrisome possibility that needs to be soberly and strategically entertained.
- Plan for a persistence of COVID-19 shopping behaviors.
COVID-19 is likely to have a long-term influence on behaviors and routines. More than half of those surveyed by Kantar will continue their lockdown behaviors even post-COVID-19 (52 percent overall, 57 percent of Millennials and 55 percent of Gen Zers).
Leading off for many retailers, customers are now embracing BOPIS, which once served only a niche of users. Along the same lines, contactless checkouts and increased in-store app use also could become standard operating procedures.
Retailers need to understand evolving trip missions and how they serve different sorts of customers at different times.
Further, retailers should strategize about how they can support at-home behavior changes, such as improved hygiene, a focus on eating better as well as time spent with family and on personal development.
- Customers notice “above & beyond” efforts. And a lack thereof.
The notable growth of gratitude toward “above and beyond” brands has continued amid COVID-19’s unfortunate endurance. Decooda’s ongoing research during the pandemic showed improved NPS (Net Promoter Score) for brands that showed care and concern for their customers. Such retailers were rewarded with a collective NPS of +73. Brands seen as “letting people down” saw their collective NPS take a dive at -85.
This means showing customers that you care about their safety and mental and financial well-being. While significantly raising the price of an important and high-demand product might seem like a reasonable reaction to supply and demand, it also could come back to haunt retailers when, say, customers begin posting angry rants on social media.
Remember that everything sends a message. Whether it’s the layout and messaging of your entry area, or the subtle cues that highlight the work you are doing to create a safe area to shop, or the PPE and staffing model for your employees, be sure that you are intentional in the stories you are telling. An oversight may be seen as a lack of concern for shoppers who pass through your doors.
- Adopt technology that reduces customer friction/contact.
COVID-19 has emboldened customers to try new retail experiences, out of necessity and curiosity.
Customers are now trying technology that many retailers were reluctant to fully embrace, from flexible fulfillment options to AR/VR (such as virtual try-on, from makeup to clothes to hairstyles), to touchless checkouts, to QSR codes at restaurants and to significant app development and expansion.
Enable shoppers to interact with in-store digital screens and messaging through their smartphones. This allows customers to download information to their device and engage with it both in and out of store. They can also see unique visuals and information while in-store, enabling a more experiential visit.
Make your app valuable and useful for customers and they will engage. For example, according to CodeBroker research, 75 percent of respondents indicated that they would shop more often at their favorite stores if they received mobile/digital coupons.
Simply, put as much information and control in your shoppers’ hands as possible.
- Increase the focus on localized and personalized engagement.
It’s important to realize that retail plays a key role in communities beyond just fulfilling product wants and needs. It also represents normalcy — even with customers and associates wearing masks — and provides reassurance of a public life amid social isolation.
Good works aren’t just good — they’re also good for business. Listen to your customers and keep an ear tuned toward local events and news. Seek out areas of need where your business could help, such as providing supplies or meals for health care workers or providing discounts to teachers who are either worried about being in-class or stressing about the complications of online learning.
What about adding a “shop local” section to your store, so area small businesses might get a boost?
Further, in the wake of reduced face-to-face options, what can you and your team do to maintain some critical human connection? Whether it is a short personal note in a curbside pickup package or spending a few extra minutes on a video call with shoppers to enquire about their families, seek out ways to show your customers that you care and want to help them through the pandemic.
Where can you make a difference? Whatever the need, those who see you pitch in now will likely remember that in the future.
Great customer experiences always matter. They distinguish you from your competition.
In anxious times, though, they matter even more. An optimized experience during COVID-19 will be remembered, and that will lead to brand affinity and customer loyalty.