The “New” Retail In-Store Experience: Strategies for Reopening Safely

Sparks Marketing
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The global coronavirus pandemic continues to impact so many industries as the world reopens, especially retail. From the onset of COVID-19, shockwaves of uncertainty flood the retail landscape, first impacting supply chains and inventory, and ultimately shuttering businesses — some temporarily, others for good.

While U.S. retailers more recently are feeling the effects of the pandemic on a greater scale, globally, the industry continues its ongoing struggles — since the beginning of this year. Some retailers can’t keep products on the shelves while others aren’t moving inventory at all.

And while some consumers are buying in excess, others are realizing they don’t need as much. With government mandates and consumer buying patterns changing swiftly and frequently, COVID-19 is changing the retail landscape, not only in the “right now”, but most likely for good. With reopenings already underway or seemingly right around the corner, retailers need strategies for this “new normal.”

For many consumers, a cloud of fear lingers about shopping in traditional brick and mortar stores, but our innate human desire for in-person experiences isn’t likely to change. Retail experiences are more important than ever. Reimagined in-store experiences should be valuable and memorable — worth leaving the comfort of your Clorox-wiped home. But above all, the “new” in-store experience needs to be safe and instill trust in customers and employees alike.

“Brands need more than a checklist of sanitization practices,” notes The Harvard Business Review. “They need actionable vision that will set them apart and entice people back inside their stores.”

In this week’s blog post, we explore retail strategies to get back to business safely and effectively in the wake of this global crisis.

The Importance of Maintaining Trust When it’s Time to Reopen

In any business, in any industry, establishing a sense of trust with your customers is paramount. If a customer trusts your brand, feels safe when purchasing your products, and knows it can rely on you for transparency, good customer service, and a positive shopping experience, they will continue coming back.

A key way to build trust is communication — it’s more important than ever as the retail industry reopens. In a recent National Retail Federation (NRF) article, Rachel Gruntmeir, owner of Oklahoma City boutique, Black Scintilla, echoes the importance of communicating with customers in the face of COVID-19.

“We are also communicating with our customers a lot more, since not as many are coming into the store. I think staying engaged with them is a big key. We try to let them know what to expect when coming in to shop: hours, guest capacity, cleaning methods, etc,” says Gruntmeir in the article, As Stores Reopen, Retailers Prioritize Safety and Keep Shopping Personal.

With so much of the retail experience is different. Transparent communication is a must for maintaining that customer connection and trust.

One of the most critical communications in this post-COVID setting is what you’re doing to ensure customers feel safe in your environment. In the new in-store experience, this means putting the right physical and social distancing measures in place, the appropriate safety protocols, and using technology to foster a touchless shopping experience. If customers are aware of the measures retailers are putting in place, they’re going to feel a new level of comfort.

“Nearly three-quarters [of customers said] they wouldn't feel very comfortable shopping in a physical store in the next three months, according to a survey from workplace safety platform SafetyCulture and YouGov emailed to Retail Dive.” says Retail Dive. “The same survey found that comfort increases when businesses take precautions like regular cleaning and are transparent about their procedures.”

Now, let’s take a closer look at the safety protocols and tools retailers can utilize, as well as how technology can factor into the new in-store retail experience.

Physical Distancing — How to Maintain and Enforce a Safe Environment

Physical distancing is the key to safe and successful post-pandemic retail. This includes requiring customers and employees to wear masks while inside the store, putting limits on how many customers can enter the store at a given time, and of course, implementing sanitizing procedures.

When it comes to physical distancing strategies and safety protocols, there are several measures to ensure customers and employees stay safe. This includes everything from aisle-directional signage, physical distancing signage, sanitizing stations, sneeze guards and partitions, to temperature screening, deep-cleaning, limiting occupancy. Aside from the actual communication tools themselves, it’s important that staff communicate effectively — and with understanding — to ensure that customers are following the rules and maintaining safety.

It’s important to communicate the rules of physical distancing in your space in ways customers appreciate — this includes the signage itself as well as tone of voice. Speaking to Retail Dive, Tom Ertler, senior vice president and creative director at Miller Zell shares some key points to keep in mind.

“The scale and proportion and positioning of signage — even though, I’m hoping, it’s temporary — should be just like permanent signage so it doesn't feel haphazard or slapped on,” says Ertler in the Retail Dive article, How to Run a Store In a Pandemic. “Give that message in a tone of voice so it feels like the brand speaking. ‘Glad you're here, remember social distancing,’ in key areas and at natural touchpoints. The floor is now a much more powerful way to communicate some of these messages, ‘This is what six feet looks like,’ the directionality.”

The foundation of the new in-store retail experience is a comprehensive physical distancing strategy — using onbrand smart signage , and associates communicating your safety and distancing requirements in a manner that customers attribute to your brand.

Another avenue we explore is the role technology plays in this new, post-COVID retail environment.

Exploring the Role of Technology in the New In-Store Retail Experience

Retail brands are embracing technology to foster a safer shopping environment — from implementing shopping reservations to developing contactless experiences.

For customers and employees alike, a contactless shopping experience instills a sense of comfort and protection as it prevents the spread of germs on surfaces. Retailers are using technology like apps or mobile websites to help shoppers choose and pay for an item — without having to actually touch anything.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Kate Machtiger, founder of Extra Terrestrial Studios, shares an anecdote about a touchless shopping experience, providing a look into the new in-store retail experience.

“In the fall of 2019, my team designed Tupperware’s Tupp Soho pop up, a shopping experience that necessitated no touching of products, no restocking of displays, and no need for large crowds,” notes Machtiger. “Displays were used to showcase products, which could then be purchased by flagging a staff member, who had a tablet equipped with Square. After the purchase was complete, the staff member would collect and wrap fresh versions of the items ‘backstage’ and bring out the finished shopping bag (a reusable tote).”

Another example of the touchless shopping experience comes from Footwear News highlighting Salesfloor and it’s mobile application that fosters contactless transactions.

“Shoppers browsing online will be able to initiate a phone call or video chat with store staff, through a Salesfloor Connect widget placed directly on the retailer’s e-commerce site,” notes Footwear News on the technology. “This builds on the platform’s original capabilities, which include live chat, e-mail and SMS communications, and is expected to be useful for customers wishing to view product in a 3-D format.”

What’s more, associates use Salesfloor to book or manage customer shopping appointments — in-store, over the phone, or through a video conference. This supports the idea of setting up appointments to limit the amount of people inside the store at any given time. Not only does this make shoppers feel more comfortable, it's easier for store owners and associates to manage physical distancing and safety protocols.

Speaking to NRF, Morgan Harris, owner of Green Bambino in Oklahoma City, echoes why shopping by appointment is a success for her as a retailer.

“We’ve had several customers let us know they aren’t comfortable going inside other retail establishments yet, and came to Green Bambino because they knew they’d be shopping alone,” Harris says in the NRF article. “Virtually all guests shopping by appointment have at least made a purchase, and most of them have spent at least twice our average sale amount.”

The Takeaways

The new in-store retail experience is just that, new. In the post-COVID reality, time and practice are necessary to reach the sweet spot for retail customers and employees to feel truly safe and comfortable. But using the strategies outlined here, smart and onbrand physical distancing tools,being transparent about your brand’s safety policies, and using touchless technology are great places to start.