Covid-19: Re-opening retail: strategies for now, next and future

As we near two months of lockdown, we’ve seen both the highs and lows of retail. We’ve witnessed amazing creativity - from delivery options to ‘silver hours’ and businesses pivoting from cupcakes to grocery boxes. On the flip side we’re seeing well-loved names shut their stores for the last time, and many people sadly losing their jobs.

So now, with the curve appearing to ‘flatten’ in the UK, we’re asking “when will shops open?” But most importantly, “how can we keep customers, and staff, safe?”

Measures that we’ve seen in grocery stores are going to become commonplace. Internal teams are looking at how people return to work, reviewing which stores can open safely, and the changes that need to be made to support re-opening.

During this period, being data-driven is key. Businesses equipped with a single view of inventory, store analytics and up-to-date information about customer digital buying behaviours will quickly be able to prioritise which stores to open and what stock is needed to support popular products.

Next, consider five aspects of your retail business that will need to rapidly adapt.

People: Put people at the heart of all efforts. The emotional states of customers and colleagues must continue to be considered. Using online survey tools, CRM, web analytics and social sentiment analysis will give you a better understanding of how your core audiences and segments are feeling, what they’re thinking, and what messages you need to be communicating to encourage them to engage. Your colleagues’ roles will also need to change alongside the role of the store, going from cashier to product advisor to picker/packer for commerce orders. Online training and employee enablement tools for personal devices will unlock the next generation of store colleague.

Communications: Communicating the new shopping etiquette is going to be critical to brands walking the line between safety and alienating customers. Digital communication has already proven critical over the last few weeks. Non-verbal communication will be equally important in store - from choice of music to signage and wayfinding to help customers abide by the rules; transparent, explicit messaging on hygiene will also be crucial. But with reduced occupancy, brands need to find ways to extend their influence in the customer journey outside of the store with external messaging, digital media and at home experiences.

Space: Suddenly your store entrance, width of aisles, the space near checkouts, and the peak density of people in store are going to come under intense scrutiny. Tape on the floors, limited numbers of shopping baskets and plexiglass screens are really only the start. More sustainable solutions such as appointment bookings have been trialled by Apple and Best Buy and have the added benefit of a more personalised, premium experience. Enabling virtual queuing systems, such as those seen in IKEA or even Disney theme parks, are another way of reducing the physical numbers in store without impacting sales or customer experiences. Using advances in space and time modelling will allow these systems to optimise slots, and consider how to prioritise high-risk or VIP customers.

Technology: Any in-store digital experience will need to be available on your customer and/or colleagues’ personal mobile device. Payments will need to be 100% contactless, regardless of transaction size. Gesture based interfaces may help address some of these limitations, but facial recognition for security (as introduced by the iPhone X) will become a lot more commonplace. I’m also a believer in the instrumentation of environments, using technologies like RetailNext to analyse store traffic and alert colleagues when a space has exceeded capacity, or to identify chokepoints.

Product: start by understanding what products people are going to be interested in, and use buying and intent signalling from purchase channels to inform your supply chains. This will ensure that re-opened stores don’t see a repeat of the challenges grocers faced from hoarding and peak demand levels in March. Propositions like curb-side pickup, click & collect, and ship from store will help businesses clearing large amounts of seasonal stock that’s been effectively trapped in closed stores, and these mechanisms will help significantly reduce the amount of time consumers spend in store to purchase goods.

Systems: Products which have been tried on and then returned will also become a much bigger problem in apparel, so efficient reverse logistics and clear mechanisms for returns need to be created now so products can be cleaned and sanitised efficiently, en-masse. Behind the scenes, programmes deploying automated systems need to be accelerated as much as possible so that future outbreaks don’t cripple supply chains, fulfilment for digital orders, and enable business to keep revenue streams open as long as possible. Systems also need to be established in light of a new omni-channel proposition to allocate products efficiently between stores and warehouse.

Conclusions

The next 12 months will call upon businesses to create a paradox of innovation in how they must be incredibly human-centric, yet over-invest in technology and data to ensure they are fit for the future. The role of the store has changed forever, and so using real-estate as a combination of a marketing platform, a sales vehicle, a loyalty reward and a micro-fulfilment centre will require a fundamental shift in company mindset.

We’re in this for the long haul, so start investing now as it will pay dividends in market share, if not in revenue and margins.

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