Retail design in a post-pandemic world

Tactics to keep employees and shoppers safe and comfortable
Operation Open Doors

NRF's Operation Open Doors provides a roadmap for safely reopening stores.

Developed with input from hundreds of retailers brought together by NRF, the initiative provides operational guidelines and considerations in four areas: health and safety, people and personnel, logistics and supply chain, and litigation and liability.

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As retailers slowly reopen across the country, the single most critical thing to remember about post-COVID-19 retail design is this: Stay flexible. Many design changes retailers make today could very well need to change again, within a matter of months. NRF reached out to six retail design specialists and consultants in markets across the country for their thoughts on how retail design might change. Here are their key suggestions.

Think strategically

Stay flexible. Flexibility in near-term retail design — not change for the sake of change — might be critical, says Mara Devitt, senior partner at retail design firm McMillanDoolittle. “The rules will change again, and expectations will change — which has always been the case in retail.” Flexible design means that instead of making permanent bricks-and-mortar changes, allow for things like store layout to be easily modified when consumer demand takes a different turn.

Bolster online sales efforts. Online sales will become an increasingly large component of overall sales. The pandemic has served to boost this ongoing trend into a much higher gear, says Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail. “Those who are not strong in online retail will have to ramp up quickly,” she says. Mass merchants will have to get even better at online sales.

Even before consumers walk into the store, it’s critical to build trust in terms of safety, cleanliness and maintenance.

Communicate safety efforts. Even before consumers walk into the store, it’s critical to build trust in terms of safety, cleanliness and maintenance, Devitt says. It’s all about letting consumers know before they come in the store what to expect once they’re inside of the store. Whether it’s showing them how properly keep distance while standing in line or updates on a safer checkout process, it’s incumbent on retailers to make changes or new rules perfectly clear.

Become a place of purpose. Instead of retailers presenting themselves as places to browse, get entertained and discover impulse items, some will want to become more purposeful places where consumers specifically go to get an item or two — and get out, says Kirthi Kalyanam, executive director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University.

Consider the customer experience

Revamp “treasure hunt” shopping. Many shoppers love “treasure hunt” shopping at off-price chains. But Devitt says there could be simple ways for retailers to make that treasure hunt more comfortable in a post-pandemic world. For example, clearance bins could be transparent; customers could rummage through them with disinfected devices or with gloves. Gloves could also be provided for customers browsing racks.

Encourage shopping appointments. Imagine new spaces within stores for those who previously booked shopping appointments online. Shoppers might enter a specially reserved space where a salesperson listens to their needs and then collects — and presents — the things they want, Devitt says. The isolated space lets shoppers keep their distance from other shoppers while receiving very personal care from a salesperson.

Limit occupancy levels. Store occupancy levels could be the most critical — but most problematic — issue retailers face going forward. The issue might vary significantly from market to market and from one city to the next, says Doug Stephens, founder of consulting firm Retail Prophet. Some retailers might need to consider evolving the role of the store greeter to someone who counts — and limits — the number of customers in the store, says Jody Wasbro, senior vice president of strategy and experience design at WD Partners.

Create transition space at the entrance. This might be the single most common post-COVID-19 design change to most retailers. “Think of it as a decompression space,” Devitt says. It can function as an educational check-in area where shoppers are informed of what safety actions the store is taking and what safety actions are expected of them. Most stores will try to smoothly link their own brand’s iconic branding elements to the transition area, she says, so it all feels unique.

Redo sampling. Retailers — particularly cosmetics retailers — that rely on some form of product sampling might want to redo the physical setup and the sampling methodology, Devitt says. Instead of dipping into a previously opened jar of face cream, for example, cosmetics samples will need to be single-use. Some forms of digital makeup sampling done online with imagery could gain traction.

As more customers request product pickup options, retailers will want to vastly improve the experience.

Create a better pickup experience. As more customers request product pickup options, Wasbro says retailers will want to vastly improve the experience. Pickup should be appointment-only to eliminate long lines; in areas of the country that are prone to adverse weather, retailers might want to cover pickup areas for driver comfort.

Avoid congestion at checkout. What if checkout could be eliminated entirely, such as at Amazon Go stores? Or perhaps the same folks who formerly worked at checkout could be redeployed to keep the store looking pristine, healthy and safe, Corlett says. Where this isn’t practical, checkout stations should be closely monitored for safe customer spacing and constant cleaning.

Focus on facilities

Create clean employee areas. Employee areas will be less about lockers to store coats, and more about overall employee wellness. Wasbro says some retailers might want to consider providing employees with clean, sanitized uniforms each day for work. A key part of this tactic is communicating these moves to customers.

Rethink spatial requirements. For customer comfort, the personal space required between shoppers in checkout areas may be up to five times greater than it used to be, says Jay Baptista, senior principal at retail design specialist Stantec.

Use different materials. Retailers will want to present smoother surfaces that broadly discourage bacteria and live viruses, Wasbro says. That could mean fewer wood surfaces and even different paint textures that are smoother.

Eliminate handles and knobs. In a world where customers are going to feel increasingly reluctant to touch anything, Stephens says handles and knobs are among the easiest things to eliminate. Doors can be made to push open without touching handles — or open automatically with the wave of a hand.

Show carts being sanitized. Retailers should make a very public display of how they sanitize their carts, Wasbro says. Carts can no longer simply be stacked outdoors. They should be fully sanitized inside by a designated employee or, perhaps in the future, with some form of UV lighting or some sort of mechanized disinfectant system.

Consider germ-free shelving. Retailers might want to investigate what types of shelving are most commonly used in healthcare environments like hospitals and doctors’ offices, Baptista says, and decide if that translates into a healthier retail environment.

Create one-way aisles. In order to eliminate bottlenecks and speed up the shopping process, Stephens says some retailers might want to consider creating one-way aisles.

Consumers who are concerned about high-touch areas might view kiosks through an entirely different lens going forward.

Eliminate kiosks. For years, major restaurant retailers in particular have created kiosks to assist customers in ordering more quickly and reducing long lines at the cashier. But consumers who are concerned about high-touch areas might view kiosks through an entirely different lens going forward. Retailers might want to think carefully before adding more kiosks and instead facilitate more contactless ways to order, such as via cellphone. “Why touch something that tens of thousands of others have touched before you?” Stephens says.

Revamp fitting rooms. Making fitting rooms sterile will be a major challenge, particularly since many are carpeted. All clothing, however, would need to be sealed — then publicly sanitized and sealed again after it’s been tried on. “This will require a major reset,” Kalyanam says.

Keep products in storage. Think of this as a flashback to the full-service shoe store, where there are a very limited number of items on display and a salesperson goes to the storage area and brings customers the exact products they want to try on. “The whole try-on experience will be reimagined,” Devitt says. Once items are tried on, there will need to be an immediate sanitation process that customers can see.

Eliminate impulse displays. To keep checkout quick, simple and sanitary, Wasbro says retailers might want to remove the impulse purchases routinely stacked at checkout counters.

No matter what, retailers should never make any physical changes chain-wide without first testing it out in several stores, Devitt says. Also, run the changes by local regulators first, just to make sure there are no surprises. And while design changes are being trialed, she says, don’t forget to specifically ask employees and customers for their feedback.

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