Retail reopening: how to emerge stronger than ever

Over the course of the pandemic, shoppers have become accustomed to a very different retail experience, from large amounts of the high street closing their shutters to the accelerated shift to digital channels. For the stores deemed essential, such as grocers and pharmacists, strict social distancing controls and other measures were imposed to keep shoppers and staff safe. Physical retail has now become a pragmatic, safety-first activity. 

No going back?

Shoppers used to visit stores for the chance to interact physically with new products and encounter other people. Research shows that while roughly a third would welcome a return to that previous normality, 44% remain uncertain about going back to physical stores. It is not surprising that they would choose screens over human interaction for advice and support. Despite restrictions easing, the habits and risk-averse behaviours developed by many over the past few months are likely to persist well into the future.

So how can retailers address those concerns, persuade shoppers of their continued relevance and use what they’ve learnt from the pandemic to successfully reopen stores and come back even stronger?


To hear more from Kurt Salmon, along with KFC, talking about the future of the store in a post-pandemic world, watch Essential Retail's webinar, sponsored by ITL Group, here.


Trust is a must

Gaining the confidence and trust of consumers is non-negotiable. Fundamentally, shoppers need to feel reassured by the efforts of retailers to keep them safe. This means that cleaning and sanitation, alongside appropriate social distancing measures, are not just carried out but are clearly visible. Shoppers will be looking for an increasingly touchless experience, and that’s where technology comes into play. Self-service checkouts that use cameras to count the number of items being purchased (and even recognise each individual product) is just one example of how retailers are reducing the need for shoppers to touch much (beyond the product they are actually purchasing) throughout their journey in-store. 

A dependable experience

Safety aside, trust also means guaranteeing shoppers a worthwhile trip to the store, by making it as simple and convenient as possible. The pandemic underscored that stock levels and variety need to be managed, but with social distancing changing how people walk down aisles, product location and placement is also impacted. Video technology can help with efficient stock replenishment, can support more effective product placement, as well as understand consumer behaviour in-store. Technology can also help individual customers find what they are looking for more easily. These safe, reliable and convenient experiences will help inspire customer confidence to return to in-person shopping.  

Back to the future

The switch to digital channels already had considerable momentum pre-Covid-19. But not surprisingly, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online shopping. For example, before lockdown in March, as awareness of Covid-19 began to rise, click and collect orders were up 35% in the UK.

And it’s a shift that is likely to persist, meaning retailers must carefully assess which of their stores to reopen and for what purpose, taking the store format into careful consideration. Analytics can help support an informed picture of the re-opening strategy, indicating which stores to target for specific reasons, such as size or location. Some may resume their traditional role; others could remain closed. And for some, different formats will help create relevance for the new habits that customers have acquired. This could be, for example, by operating as fulfilment centres to maximise convenience. So, rather than replacing physical outlets with digital channels alone, the key to future success will rest on the creativity with which they can be brought together to complement their respective strengths.

A model for resilience

It’s not just store formats that will require redesigning following the pandemic. Retailers’ operating models must also be reimagined to maximise their resilience to face whatever the uncertain future may hold. The safety of operations will be paramount, but they also require a rigorous analysis of spending to ensure that costs are directed to critical areas and waste is minimised. A zero-based approach to costs will generate the cash flow to navigate the way out of the crisis and the funds to invest in the future. For example, going forward, investment in greater automation will be needed to reduce operational costs and eliminate manual processes that can help improve safety for staff and customers alike.

Emerge stronger

While Covid-19 has had a profound impact on many retailers’ profits in the short-term, there’s no doubt that it has accelerated trends that needed addressing long before the pandemic hit. The fundamental responses required are also largely unchanged: focus on the customer experience, optimise the use of all channels and plan effectively. If they can succeed in these three key areas, there’s every reason to believe that retailers will thrive in the future.