Amidst COVID-19, many retail industry experts’ response to the pandemic has been to question the future relevance of the bricks and mortar retail channel. They argue the pandemic has accelerated the current damage created by trade wars, the consumer shift to online retailers and the fact that North America is over stored, leading to the current state of uncertainty. We can all agree the situation for the retail sector is pretty dire with the pandemic adding a whole new level of uncertainty as economies trepidatiously open their doors for business.
The Silver Lining
For all the doom and gloom there is a silver lining. Although there may be a series of waves and off-and-on disruptions as the world waits for a viable vaccine, consumers clearly desire to return to shopping in stores, eating out and being out in the world. In China some retail stores made an absolute killing on their first open day. However, for those looking to return to business as usual, a reckoning is inevitable: post-COVID we will see a new reality for retailers.
The good news is that for strategic brands that act quickly, this new retail reality can be leveraged as an opportunity. As consumers emerge from isolation, their need for social distancing and the fear of a second or third wave of outbreaks will affect their behavior. Many of the behaviors learned in this period will become permanent. It is important to understand that post-COVID, retail brands can become a source of rejuvenation. By clearly responding to consumers’ heightened emotional needs, retail brands can alleviate anxiety and help people feel “normal” again.
In this article, we are sharing six strategies for retailers looking to remain relevant and mitigate the impact of the pandemic. We gladly note that many proactive retailers have already implemented some of these strategies. For others, please use this as a guide to remaining viable throughout the pandemic and to be prepared for the post COVID-19 consumer resurgence.
Strategy #1: Move Store Resources to Online, Chat and Social Media
Whether or not your region is currently open or in quarantine, we anticipate there is a high likelihood of repeat periods of social distancing as second and third waves hit. While some companies are taking a “wait and see” stance, our perspective is that regardless of what the future holds, being future ready is the smart business decision. Putting politics aside, it makes sense to be prepared.
For store management or head office staff of stores that are in various states of closure/partially open, reallocating valuable staff to online sales can make an enormous difference. In China, many retail brands weathered the strict lockdown by using one on one WeChat sales consultant technology to allow staff to engage through social media livestreams, one on one conversations and online meetings. More robust chat features that include video chat with a sales person or direct messaging through mobile devices are being explored by retail brands as measures to take advantage of the increased amount of time consumers are spending on the internet.
Strategy #2: Curbside Experiences
Six months ago it was inconceivable that customers would be willing to stand in line for hours to get groceries or drive to pick up their purchase from the curb. However, the new reality is that certain inconveniences are unavoidable. How retail brands address these difficulties for consumers will make all the difference.
When quarantine measures came into place, everyone understood that retailers were doing the best they could with a challenging situation. Duct-taped lines demarcating safe distancing measures were fine – for a while. Now, retail brands should be considering how they can improve the experience for consumers – given the range of parameters that are in place in various locations at any given time. If customers are waiting in line, how can you triage to move it along faster? Are there ways you can improve your curbside to make it a more memorable experience? Can you improve the measures you have in place for safe distancing to make them less utilitarian and ensure they are on brand?
Strategy #3: Reset your Merchandising Strategy
The virus has created havoc on the supply chain which will shift from China to Europe and Latin America, reinforcing the fact that we are a connected, inter-dependent world where an impact within one market reverberates throughout the planet. Some retailers are moving their store inventory back into warehouses to reintroduce unsold items for next year’s season in the event of a shortage of inventory. As different regions are opening at varying rates and there are likely to be repeat shut-downs of some scale, having the ability to be responsive is critical.
Strategy #4: A Two-Pronged Approach
As we have monitored consumer attitudes throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a clear difference between regions that have so far been spared the worst and those that were hard hit. Retailers are walking a tightrope when it comes to issues like mandatory masks – in some places masks may be seen as an essential in order to make people comfortable, while in others making them mandatory may evoke violent outrage. Having two strategies, one for areas that are expecting a more serious approach and one for areas that want a “business as usual” approach, will be important for retailers. Even if you are predominantly in one area at the moment, as the virus moves and new areas are hit, attitudes may shift. Building flexible approaches that can be changed up quickly will help brands stay in the best possible position given the challenging circumstances.
Strategy #5: Social Distancing Enhanced Store Design
The pandemic will leave a lasting behavioral imprint for decades to come. As such, retailers need to explore how to integrate social distancing in their stores. Pharmacies and supermarkets have already initiated temporary measures with demarkations, plexiglass separation and crowd control. However, in the future we will see greater separation between staff and customers and a greater need to ensure hygiene. To effectively leverage and respond to the needs of customers, retailers will need to leverage social distancing strategies with great haste. Retailers need to think about more than simply moving people apart, but to do it in a way that feels intuitive, comfortable and on-brand.
Strategy #6: Digitally Controlled Environment
The great news for most retailers is the fact that these technologies have already been implemented in many categories and enhancement can be completed quickly. The idea is that through digital technology, customers can see peak store hours by the minute through in-store monitors, as well as give retailers the ability to assign store shopping time for each customer and also have touch-free POS systems. AI and past consumer behavior can be leveraged as consumers begin to adopt and embrace these new technologies rapidly. Current PIN pads for credit cards will be removed, leveraging biometric security systems and driving more transactions through smart wallets. Retailers need to promote their migration to these new technologies on their website as well as in-store and through social media.
A Move Towards a Positive Reality
We need to overcome our anxiety and fear of the unknown by forging ahead and turning these challenging times into opportunities to better engage with customers. Regardless of the hardship currently occurring in the market, when the storm is over, there will be winners and losers depending on how they embrace change.
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