Looking at the post-pandemic in-store experience

Lessons in adaptation and flexibility help retailers stay safe and profitable

Stores are reopening, slowly but surely. Retailers are absorbing CDC- and state-issued guidelines for keeping staff and shoppers safe from the novel coronavirus. As they enact social distancing and install hand-sanitizer stations and acrylic barriers, how are they considering the in-store experiences many brands are known for?

The answers are trickling in. Retailers such as Nordstrom have already told customers that high-touch specialty services such as alterations and makeovers could be unavailable as stores reopen.

The past three months have pushed many retailers’ customer service initiatives to warp speed. Buy online, pick up in store has morphed into contactless curbside pickup, and many apps and in-store order kiosks deliver convenience, connectivity and cashless checkouts.

Design and strategy experts agree in-store customer experiences won’t go away completely, but the type and amount offered is up for debate, especially for those retail brands known for remarkable customer service or time-saving conveniences.

“I don't think we move away from creating in-store experiences that promote interactivity. But I do think we have to add a new layer of perceived safety to the story that we are telling.”

Brian Weltman, RHDC Studio

Future forward

“I don't think we move away from creating in-store experiences that promote interactivity,” says Brian Weltman, founder, CEO and creative director of design firm RHDC Studio. “But I do think we have to add a new layer of perceived safety to the story that we are telling. (It) communicates that the retailer cares about its customers and its employees alike.”

RHDC Studio specializes in high-touch and personal service environments such as independent salons, DIY maker spaces for take-home gourmet food and art, and prescription eyewear retailers. “We've fought for a decade to make the transaction experience more ‘collaborative,’ so I don't think permanent barriers are the answer,” he says. However, “When the time comes for some additional protection, it would be nice if the solution looked intentional.”

The most vexing questions deal with the future: “What do the environments that open over the course of the next 24 months look like versus those that open over the next five years?”

Some mitigation techniques instituted during the pandemic will make the cut and become future must-haves. Kroger tested a pickup-only store in the Cincinnati suburbs; Whole Foods Market similarly closed select stores to foot traffic, and both retailers removed hot and cold food tables in all locations. Starbucks shut down most of its stores and reopened with curbside pickup options.

Product sampling

For the time being, cooking demonstrations, complementary beverages and product sampling — a mainstay for many merchants — are pretty much out of the question. “If you were to offer open samples of candy, the health department requires a three-compartment sink to wash everything,” says Andrew McQuilkin, retail market leader at BHDP Architecture. A workaround doesn’t need to look makeshift, though. “A retailer could offer samples by request, just like many ice cream stores.”

Until data becomes available about how contagious surfaces actually are, “We don’t see cosmetic sampling being viable for a while,” McQuilkin says. But just as grocers can offer pre-wrapped samples, the beauty counter has options.

Most beauty brands offer packaged samples, but the emphasis used to be on in-store tutorials, makeovers and product testing. The Atelier Beauté Chanel, a new workshop concept from the French beauty care giant, kicked it up a notch.

Before temporarily closing its New York City location, the outpost welcomed walk-ins and offered many gratis sampling services. The luxe environment featured marble sink stations fully stocked with Chanel skincare products that invited customers to wash up with its cleansers and pat down with its serums and moisturizers.

The global brand’s cosmetics played a major role in the store. The Atelier has a lipstick bar stocked with hygienic samples of every Chanel lip color and lip products. “Chanel offers each cosmetic as an individual sample not more than a cotton swab amount, but enough to sell you on the color and feel,” says Eric Daniel, creative director at brand and retail consulting firm FITCH.

Fragrances “are displayed and sampled in a private setting, providing an intensely personal conversion opportunity.” Those techniques are easily transferable and adaptable to other categories.

“Uncertainty places a burden of responsibility on retailers and brands to create a reasonable perception and practice of a safe environment to offer their experience and transact business.”

Eric Daniel, FITCH

Retail 101

Many questions remain and even online retailers have struggled to handle the volume of orders that need to be processed. “When will we really feel comfortable re-engaging?” Daniel says. “Society’s response to the virus has been nothing short of miraculous patience, but it’s ending as suddenly as it began.”

The absence of a vaccine or therapy adds to underlying anxiety. “Uncertainty places a burden of responsibility on retailers and brands to create a reasonable perception and practice of a safe environment to offer their experience and transact business,” he says.

The most successful and sustainable brand experiences will be individual for shoppers and guests through appointments and personal services. “In retail,” Daniel says, “It may be trite but it’s true — what’s old is new again.”

Judy Bell, CEO of consulting firm Energetic Retail, agrees. “It’s really no different today during the pandemic than before COVID-19,” she says. “People want to get in, get out. And now, they want to be safe.”

An easy-to-navigate store with ample lighting, high-impact signage and wayfinding, plus other sensory stimulation, will invite customers back to the store and reinforce the perception of “fast and easy.” Once customers again feel comfortable inside the store, impulse purchasing should increase when dwell times increase and customer anxiety about shopping returns to pre-coronavirus levels.

Marrying digital and physical

This is not the first time customers have stopped visiting bricks-and-mortar stores in recent history. A little more than a dozen years ago, the financial crisis led customers to carefully consider their purchases. Today, fear of contagion has pushed many sales online, but there are logistical issues.

That leaves retailers with physical stores to rethink nearly every category, customer journey, display, aisle placement and endcap.

Even as retailers continue to tinker with new approaches, online lessons can be applied to the physical realm.

“The digital and physical worlds need to marry even more than they are now,” Weltman says. “We’re going to see virtual or augmented online experiences that transport the customer to the store.”

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