Optimism in retail is growing. With strong vaccination numbers, it’s not difficult to see a path toward a post-COVID-19 society and economy.
Yet as we now embark toward a complicated new normal, businesses are triangulating what that means for consumers and how businesses should react to meet them where they are.
Perhaps no commercial sector was hit as hard as travel, whether that was airlines, hotels, resorts, amusement parks or travel-related retail. That is why Miller Zell was glad to sponsor the Retail Design Institute of Atlanta/Southeast Chapter’s panel discussion, “Return to Travel: How Travel-Related Retail Will Evolve” in March.
The panelists included Bryan Houser, head of mainstream PIP/plan review, design & construction– Americas for IHG Hotels & Resorts; Aaron Bonham, chief merchandising officer, Paradies Lagardère NA; Nancy Payne, planning & insights leader at creative commerce agency TPN; and Al Guntharp, who’s spent 35 years as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. The moderator was Colleen Bentley, owner and founder of WDW Park Planners, a Disney concierge planning service.
The good news is a travel boom may be on the horizon, spurred by pent-up demand: 63 percent of U.S. adults said they are excited about taking a vacation. That’s critical to the industry after spending fell 42 percent in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
This matches the expectations of the National Retail Foundation, which is predicting that retail sales “will grow between 6.5 percent and 8.2 percent to more than $4.33 trillion in 2021 as more individuals get vaccinated and the economy reopens.”
Not surprisingly, many of the talking points and conclusions from the panelists matched predominant thinking about brick & mortar retail.
When asked about digital adoptions during COVID-19 that reduced person-to-person contact and facilitated efficiency, Bonham observed, “The technology was already moving that way. This just expedited it. That’s going to continue to grow.”
Added Payne, “Trends talked about going into 2020 just got shoved into reality, whether retailers, customers or online platforms were ready for them.”
People want to return to “normal,” but that normal now can be augmented in positive ways by learnings that took place during the stress and isolation caused by the pandemic. Customers will always like convenience, and being pushed to adopt new shopping behaviors — whether that’s BOPIS, app use or contactless checkout — only means they now better understand how to employ a variety of shopping options.
Houser noted that many evolving design elements that made hotel guests more comfortable during COVID-19 were part of existing plans to refresh spaces.
“It was already a big movement in hospitality to focus on clean, quality sleep,” he said. “When you think about materials, there was already a move toward white quartz countertops. The days of the multi-colored, granite countertops were already going away.”
That means larger tiles and less grout. More cubbyholes and fewer drawers. In both cases, the design changes leaned on minimalism that communicated “cleaner.”
All panelists praised a nimble willingness to innovate through creative solutions. While such thinking is hardly revolutionary — just about every business claims to be innovative — there were more than a few tangible examples of necessity being the mother of invention.
For example, Bentley took note of a critical cultural and performative change for the Disney parks: No more large, scheduled parades, as crowded gatherings were obviously no longer viable.
As a substitute, Disney changed to spontaneous “mini parades” that still wowed young guests while mostly maintaining social distancing.
“It still provided the magic while increasing safety,” she said.
There also were some hard learnings that will apply to a potential future crisis.
Both Bonham and Houser noted that communications with partners and franchises were uneven, particularly during the pandemic’s early weeks and months. For one, there wasn’t a “one size fits all” solution with airport retail, noted Bonham, while Houser pointed to an ill-fated sense of optimism that prevented more sober reactions and precautionary initiatives.
“You’ve got to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Houser said.
Guntharp, as a first-hand observer on flights, provided the best summation of the general consensus: After a tough year-plus, the airline industry and, by connection, travel-related retail are headed for an upswing as society reemerges.
“Customers are coming back,” he said. “We’re adding more services, more destinations, more flights. I’m optimistic that at this time next year, we’ll mostly be back to normal.”