Covid-19: What opportunities can the 'new normal' of physical shopping provide retail?

With the long-awaited reopening of stores the new considerations of how customers shop safely could present an opportunity; a springboard for creating deeper, more memorable experiences and forging richer bonds with customers.

With limitations on the number of people allowed in one space at a time, brands are exploring ‘bookable’ brand time. As of next week, Tiffany in Covent Garden will re-open with a dedicated concierge service, and one to one appointments.

Arguably, this ‘scarcity’ of access, and the resulting more intimate, personalised experience one receives, could offer opportunities for brands to elevate their relationships with their customers by making them feel genuinely special, and therefore more connected and engaged.

Things that are by their nature more exclusive and ‘scarce’, become more alluring, and desirable.

This reduced, limited access could, if delivered by a brand in a creative, on brand way, activate other dimensions of the brand, and amplify the brand world. Rather like the Gucci Garden, which customers have to pay to access.

So, the idea of accessing a brand’s inner world as an exclusive, rare and valued guest could be a powerful lever for a brand, particularly if they genuinely possess not just a point of view but a genuine, salient and resonant point of distinction.

It’s the same way as the Museum of Ice Cream, which limits bookings to 15 people at a time, but in two locations, with another shortly to launch in Asia, manages to attract 7.1 million visitors a year. Valued at $200 million in 2019, the brand offers a testament to the ability to create desirability as a result of being ‘scarce’, and creates something more covetable, precisely because the limited access accelerates demand and desire.

They truly have picked their lane, gone narrow and deep on a speciality and now ‘own’ the ultimate ice cream experience, where anyone who now tries to compete in this space would be seen as a poor imitation and second best.

With a closer customer relationship being forged there is also the opportunity to enhance the role of the store staff to brand experts and personal stylists.

John Lewis have absolutely embraced this approach with the result that 20% of fashion sales in Westfield are down to six personal stylists.

The role of fitting rooms in our new normal has been one of the key points of conversation. But with 70% of decisions to buy being made in fitting rooms, arguably, this could be an ideal time to amplify the role of the fitting room in the store experience, particularly in the context of reduced customer numbers. I won’t be the only retail design consultant who has battled with fashion clients about losing valuable ‘selling space’ when we have pushed to extend the area devoted to fitting rooms. Finally, this may be the time when brands look at how to rethink a new immersive fitting room experience in ways to make customers feel truly special, and make them feel they have had the benefit of a personalised experience.

This bookable brand time could resonate in embracing a new period of slow retail, where many people have had huge pleasure in getting off the hamster wheel of their conventional routines and being forced into slowing down, and now taking the time to savour more immersive iterations stores, where the pace is slower, the mood is quieter, and less ‘hectic’ and busy, and they are genuinely taking the time to enjoy and indulge themselves, and where the interaction counts as being memorable and special.

Furthermore, there may be a desire for more escapist environments, rather than brands wanting to create home from homes, where the space offers an antidote, a positive alternative to their four walls of home. Furthermore, with exotic travel looking like it may be off the cards for a small while to come, this idea of escapism in store environments may be more compelling than ever.

Much has been written about hyper-localisation. But with increasing numbers working from home, the role of local high streets and neighbourhoods could be further amplified.

Additionally, with lower rents and rates, we may well see a revitalisation of our local high street, where finally new businesses may finally have the opportunity to open their own stores, giving our high streets more genuine diversity, variety, and choice. Arguably, the abundance of the over shopped landscape that we have experienced in recent years has not given us an abundance of genuine choice but rather in a sea of sameness, much too much of similar, undifferentiated, mediocrity.

A new flexible and fluid landscape offers a chance where both new emerging and existing brands have the opportunity to test and experiment with new models and ideas, and pop-ups to drive the customer’s acquisition in a way that is becoming increasingly hard and expensive online.

Neighbourhood Goods is a great example of a new mini, department store format. With six stores, launching originally in Austin, it offers guest brands – often new, emerging, and frequently direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands – an opportunity to ‘pop up’ in store. Their success is based on customers knowing they are always going to discover something new, as the brands frequently rotate.

This was the model for Seekology, albeit on a smaller scale, that launched in the beauty and wellness space in London late last year.

For both of these businesses, events, such as meet the makers, allow customers to get up close and personal with the brands, and feel they are learning and experiencing something new.

There are many ways brands can amplify and share their brand worlds in a changed world of rich opportunity and an appetite for newness.

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