Covid-19: It all comes down to experience for retailers in the new normal

The Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions have completely upended the high street. Over the past few months, unsold stock has piled to unprecedented volumes and sales have plummeted by almost a fifth as shoppers have stayed at home. To put this in perspective, the drop in sales represents the biggest slump since records began in the late 1980s.

The reopening of non-essential stores on 15 June, therefore, comes as a relief to many retailers across the UK, giving them the opportunity to try and recoup their losses after a troubling Q2. With rising job losses, record low levels of consumer confidence and mixed government messaging; however, the reopening of stores presents new challenges as well as a chance to start to regain lost ground.

Reopening is one thing, convincing consumers to return to physical stores when they can shop conveniently and safely from home is an entirely different challenge. Without a vaccine, shoppers will be nervous about entering brick and mortar stores and the risk posed by closer contact with strangers, despite the implementation of social distancing measures and strictly hygiene rules. YouGov has found that almost half (46%) of consumers are uncomfortable with the idea of shopping in newly reopened stores.

As they reopen, retailers are going to have to balance the competing (and possibly conflicting) challenges of creating a compelling experience for their consumers, keeping consumers and employees safe and getting the volume through the stores that they need to be profitable. Physical stores in the coming weeks and months will have to instil consumer confidence with their safety measures while also providing value over and above eCommerce platforms. This will require retailers to rethink and reimagine how physical stores operate and, more importantly, it means a higher emphasis on customer experience, since experience is a key differentiating factor for brick and mortar stores. According to research conducted by Kantar, 67% of consumers say they shop at retailers that provide a gratifying experience. Over two-thirds are more likely to choose a brand if it exposes them to new sensations or experiences.

However, creating new and positive customer experiences will be difficult in a Covid-19 world. Browsing, for example, will change dramatically following social distance measures, as will sampling/try-ons; even returns will need to be thought through. To counter this, retailers must, more than ever before, think about the overall omnichannel customer journey and invest in technologies that both protect and delight customers, while moving them through the buying process as quickly as possible (to get the volume needed), to ensure that a store visit feels both safe and valuable in a way that online alone cannot offer.

So, if the nirvana for retailers is delighting customers with in-store experiences, while providing a safe environment and moving people through the stores quickly, what options do retailers have? The key lies in considering the overall omnichannel journey rather than exploring individual experiences. For example, it’s not hard to incorporate technology (or manpower) that controls entrance to the store based on number of people but what do you do with people who are standing in line outside (in the rain since this is the UK). How can you make that experience a positive one; and a queuing mechanism certainly doesn’t help increase volumes in the store. By thinking through the overall store experience for your customers there are solutions. Perhaps enhancing your mobile browsing solutions and allowing customers to ‘pre-order’ while in line (or before getting in line), or letting people create a shopping list online and then providing them with tools to navigate more quickly through the store, or using artificial reality (AR) and inventory to allow virtual try-ons and store level stock checking so the customer knows their time in line is well spent. Couple some of those solutions with mobile or even camera-based checkout capabilities and you are hitting all of the previously mentioned drivers (a good experience, safety for customers and employees, and speed through the store).

At the same time, retailers can lean on technology in the operations aspects of the store to ensure a smooth front-facing operation. Systems such as AI-powered video cameras to monitor stock and self-checkout tills could help to ensure safety and convenience, alerting staff to dropping stock levels and enabling them to replace items quickly and without coming close to customers.

As an interesting example of this, Selfridges has announced that personal shopping appointments will take place either through video calls and this can be coupled with in store (or even curb-side) pickup to complete the experience.

These efforts are great steps towards providing a safe shopping experience that also entertains and engages the customer. Technology will be crucial in developing this offering further; from facilitating faster payments to improving AR offerings that will help customers to sample beauty products.

The future of retail is omnichannel, enabled by technology: whether in-store or online. Those that can leverage tech to provide both a safe and delightful experience will win out as customers tentatively make their way back towards physical shopping.