Three ways retailers can highlight the in-store experience

Meeting shoppers’ new expectations can help foster increased customer loyalty
Sandy Smith
NRF Contributor

Last-minute shoppers are as much a part of the holiday season as special sales and Santa Claus. They might wait until the week — even the day — before and enter a store stumped, more than a little desperate and more than a little ready to settle for a less-than-perfect gift.

Retailers can implement some last-minute ideas in kind. The right touches, even if at the last minute, can help soothe stressed shoppers and potentially earn shopper loyalty.

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“Consumers want to know their preferred retailers are doing everything they can to make shopping safe and convenient,” say Brian Ruwadi, senior partner, and Tamara Charm, senior expert at McKinsey & Company, “whether it is implementing measures to improve safety when shopping in-store, with the availability of hand gels and managing footfall, or making sure that consumers can use features such as curbside collection online.”

Ruwadi and Charm co-authored McKinsey’s annual holiday shopping report, and their research showed customers are more likely to shop with new retailers, but they bring with them high expectations.

“Physical stores need to start evolving, if they have not already,” Ruwadi and Charm say. “They need to think about the services they need to offer digital-first shoppers and the omnichannel technology needed to make it a reality. The reality is that the investments needed by many retailers cost money.

“The other side of the coin is that retailers need to be looking hard at their cost structure and taking costs out that don’t matter to the consumer. This will give them the fuel to be able to focus on these innovations.”

Charm and Ruwadi note that retailers have become “much more agile to meet the consumers’ demands for flexibility. These changes have been more acute than in the past — leaps rather than steps toward something new.”

But getting the fundamentals right remains important.

It starts with service

The basics of customer service are like getting a new pair of socks for the holidays, warm and necessary, but not very exciting to open as a gift. It’s something that’s not always noticed unless it’s amiss.

Charm and Ruwadi point, for example, to helping customers get in and out fast. “Retailers need to consider how to make the flow of the store conducive to a quick and easy shopping experience, so consumers can get in there, actually see the product, and get back out.”

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Check out how retailers are innovating for this holiday season here.

Multiple options for order fulfillment can build loyalty that pays off for the long haul, Ruwadi and Charm note. “During the COVID-19 shutdowns, consumers demonstrated their readiness to switch retailers in a search for greater value and higher levels of convenience.

“Retailers that provide consumers with easy options for buying the products they want — whether traditional home delivery, buy online for in-store pickup, or curbside — will be best positioned to attract new consumers and win back old ones. Creative approaches, such as conversational commerce, are also becoming increasingly important as shoppers use apps to research and complete transactions for delivery or in-store pick-up.”

Setting the mood

With the customers in-store, the right environment can soothe: Make sure there is music available through legal means. “Music has the unique ability to be part of the overall retail experience without dominating one’s attention,” says Eric Stensvaag, curator and writer with provides rights-cleared music to retail and fitness businesses and apps.

“If you don’t include music as a retailer, it is conspicuously absent.”

Stensvaag recommends businesses begin by understanding their target customer base as a starting point to craft the right musical mix. The right musical tone “demonstrably improves the consumer experience and will result in more sales and engagement,” he says.

In an ideal world, he says, that same music experience would be available in digital platforms, providing a seamless tie between physical and digital retail.

“Playing the right music — predominantly holiday songs, possibly with some current pop sprinkled in — will help draw customers into your stores, engage them more fully and drive stronger sales. All while helping to convey an appreciated sense of calm and normalcy.”

A time for new traditions

This is hardly the time to forsake all traditions, though. The annual pilgrimage to visit Santa might look a little different, but it still important to offer that opportunity. For Nordstrom, it meant taking that experience virtual, offering a personalized, private 15-minute video call with Santa. Even better, the $20 cost benefits Operation Warm, which provides new winter coats to children in need, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Canada.

Nordstrom also has offered a printable online template that children can use to write Santa, with the option to deliver it in-store or via curbside pickup.

Other retailers, including Bass Pro Shops, have offered contactless Santa visits with a clear glass between the Big Guy and those who wanted to share their wishes. “Elves” clean, sanitize and conduct temperature checks between visits.

“This year has been incredibly difficult for so many kids and families,” says Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. “With countless activities cancelled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it’s more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories.”

The rethinking extends well beyond those holiday traditions: NRF’s Operation Open Doors Holiday Shopping 2020 survey found that 89 percent of retailers had changed fitting room policies and 97 percent say they would definitely or probably continue to limit in-store capacity.

Winter Holidays 2020

Learn how other retailers are following the new consumer mindset in their stores here.

Opportunities for new loyalty

While it might be easy to dismiss late-in-the-game advice for this year’s holiday, understand this is only the beginning. With so much shopping-related disruption throughout the year, the holiday season presents an opportunity to build new relationships with shoppers.

“Consumers across the globe have also had a huge disruption in their ‘normal’ buying behaviors, with most consumers surveyed globally telling us they changed shopping behavior in some way,” Ruwadi and Charm say.

“Top changes include trying new retailers, new brands and just new ways of shopping (digital delivery, digital shopping, etc.). Most also tell us they intend to maintain their relationships within many of their new brands and that they intend to continue shopping in new ways.”

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