Covid-19: What long-term changes will it cause for store design?

Post-lockdown shoppers will increasingly choose to use physical stores that make them feel safe, according to new research.

Consumer and location intelligence specialist CACI says that consumer behaviour has seen five years worth of change in just two weeks, and it predicts that reworked store interiors – including features such as screens and floor markings to aid social distancing – may herald long-term changes.

As the lockdown is eased and more stores open, more than three-quarters of shoppers will choose stores where they feel safe, as shoppers seek to minimise contact with people from outside their immediate households, according to the group's report. The group says this will take a more fundamental redesign than the temporary introduction of floor markings and screens, and it predicts that widespread use of cash may cease.

Convenience store brand Spar has been keen to help shoppers feel safe in its stores, introducing a range of services and store design changes to help. These have included a range of home delivery services to support those who have been shielding or self-isolating during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Our local Spar stores play a crucial role in communities the length and breadth of the country. We are all in this together and the safety of our staff and customers is very important to us,” says Spar UK managing director Louise Hoste. “We have followed the government's advice on social distancing and now we have a variety of new measures set up in our stores.

Ian Johnston, founder of design group Quinine, says retailers have moved fast to reassure shoppers, and that installing screens and queue management systems has been a useful tactic. But he questions whether it provides a long-term solution. “In the long term I wonder if it creates more fear,” he says.

Retailers have spent decades removing barriers and opening sightlines to create open environments where customers feel safe. The installation of more barriers can – like the sudden presence of armed police in a train station – make people nervous rather than reassuring them.

“What are other cures we could use to build trust rather than fear?” asks Johnston. He suggests changes such as an increased, and very public, focus on store hygiene to reassure customers; or design changes that increase the distance between customers and staff rather than raising barriers.

Stores could also demonstrate that they are effectively managing risk to the best of their abilities, says Johnston. Initiatives such as booking a time slot to visit a supermarket – and having a fixed amount of browsing time while there – might now be a conceivable option, he says.

Retail landlords are already considering how to make shoppers feel safer. Communications will be a key element, according to Shaftesbury's head of group marketing and communications Karen Baines. “How do we reassure people that it is a place it is OK to come to? That it's safe, that we are following guidelines?” she asks. “We are working across our villages in terms of physical messaging. It might be signs on the pavements, it might be on street signs. We'll be putting hand sanitisers up. It's all about reassuring people about what we are doing.”

Some retailers are speeding up their adoption of new technologies that can help customers to minimise contact with other people. In Germany, sports retailer Decathlon has adopted a self-checkout system that lets customers scan and pay for items with a smartphone app.

Called Decathlon Deutschland Scan & Go, and supplied by MishiPay, the app disables RFID security tags to let customers leave the store with their items.

“The solution has clear customer benefits in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic; enabling shoppers to use their own device for the entire shopping journey instead of needing to touch store hardware, and eliminating the need to wait at a checkout,” says Decathlon Deutschland leader of in-store digitalisation Stefan Hertkorn.

CACI says retailers can expect to see more use of self-service checkouts, more click and collect orders, and more showrooming behaviour – especially as many shoppers have 'bridged the digital divide' during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As the lockdown lifts we will find ourselves in a new world, where consumers expect brands to put value and safety first, where stores become both more local, and more alike to showrooms, and ultimately where the physical location of the transaction becomes less relevant,” says CACI director Alex McCulloch. “This is a world where people will be more engaged with the local high street and community, but also a more polarised one between young people living in urban environments and seeking to re-engage, and older shoppers who are more fearful of the future and seeking safety and reassurance.”

Retailers of course need to consider the safety of employees as well as customers. Figures have shown retail workers have higher death rates from Covid-19 than people in jobs with less contact with members of the public.

Research group GlobalData says that when more stores are able to reopen in the coming months they must ensure staff are safe.

“Robust safety precautions are essential for non-food retailers to resume operating and will reassure both staff and customers, encouraging spend in physical locations,” says GlobalData lead analyst Sofie Willmott.

“Around 9% of the UK’s working population are employed in the retail industry and if retailers can get safety measures right, they will go some way towards protecting the health of the country. Lessons can be learnt from other regions where lockdowns are being lifted and innovative ideas are being putting into practice such as thermal cameras to check temperatures as visitors enter shopping malls.”

With the pace of change in retail showing no signs of easing in the immediate future, it may be down to customers demand to decide the ultimate level of change to stores. And as has been proven by recent experience, their appetite for change looks to have suddenly increased.