Covid-19: Five ways to ensure retailers stay relevant in a post-Covid world

As the gradual emergence from the Covid-19 crisis continues to take effect across the world, retailers are looking hard at how they can bounce-back and grow their businesses again. Yet it appears abundantly clear that there will be no simple return to business as usual. The combination of an increasing reliance on, and shift towards, digital services in the pandemic, alongside the growing voice of the tech-savvy and socially-conscious Generation Z, means retailers need to fundamentally rethink their operations – both in-store and online – to maintain relevance going forward.

During the recent Decoded Future virtual conference, Katie Baron, director of brand engagement at Stylus, outlines five key strategies that retailers should be employing to thrive in this new environment, aided and abetted by digital technology.

1. Feed brand of me

Baron begins by discussing the desire of Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2005), to succeed and make money, having grown up in a world where there is substantial economic uncertainty. In addition, this generation, above all others, crave a sense of mission and purpose in their lives. Retailers can tap into these ambitions by offering avenues for them to be realised. Baron says: “Feed the often personal and small scale appetites for success by supporting side-hustles by either providing skilling services or platforms on which fans can operate their own business.”

She highlights a number of examples that have occurred in this space. These include fashion brand Depop, which hosts workshops on brand building and includes free bookable photostudios where its team helps sellers to direct and photograph items for sale. Another example is beauty retailer Ipsy, which has opened a content creation space called open studios in LA; here, Ipsy subscribers have the opportunity to apply for studio access, and are selected according to the frequency and quality of their social media posts.

Baron adds that such initiatives that help professionalise people’s passion projects are part of the growing ‘passion economy’.

2. Community & governance recalibrated

Fostering communities could also greatly assist retail’s recovery. Gen Z in particular is very passionate about the power of community to bring about societal change. In addition, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of community and localism, with people recognising the importance of supporting each other in a time of crisis.

“Community is full of opportunities because it is synonymous with movement culture; a return to a sense of really tangible purpose. This is key when you’re thinking about your brand heritage and what your legacy really means,” outlines Baron.

She highlights the Camp family experience store in New York, which embodies the concept of ‘retail-as-a-service’, providing services as well as offering products to communities. Baron adds: “The key thing here is parents can also get memberships giving access to exclusive workshops and extended play hours, so effectively it’s like supplementing childcare.”

Baron also discusses the importance of brand’s tapping into online communities in this context, providing opportunities for groups to gather and talk around shared interests. Essentially, it is about seeing customers as a community rather than an audience.

3. Bookable brand time and tuning in

The third strategy relates to a re-imagined in-store experience, something that is likely to be critical for retailers in encouraging customers back to their shops post-pandemic. She argues shopping should be experience-based as opposed to simply being about products. To help this, customers should be allowed to book specific timeslots or tickets to receive a personalised service more often. Again, this is a concept is being driven by Gen Z, who are more likely to see shopping as a social experience than older generations.

“Easing people back into the joys of store life is going to be very much based on reassurance, making bookable brands slots, things that feel like they’re a safe experience but without totally sacrificing the beautiful sense of discovery and delight,” says Baron.

A key example in this space is the Museum of Ice Cream, which limits bookings to 15 customers at a time and is incredibly popular, attracting 7.1 million visitors each year across its two sites in the US.

She adds that virtual one-on-one consultations, of the type introduced by a number of retailers as a result of store closures during Covid-19, will continue to be vital in giving customers this type of personalised experience post-Covid from the safety and comfort of their own homes.

4. Personal pathway – live and dynamic

Linked to enhanced personalisation is giving customers a greater sense of control whilst shopping, allowing them to shape their in-store experiences as much as possible. Baron comments: “Control, or the illusion of it, is unsurprisingly going to be supremely important post-pandemic." She thinks this is because control has been so heavily curtailed in recent months, but also because of hygiene and safety. "Moving on, many have become much more set in our ways during lockdown – we want things how we want them.”

Tech will be at the centre of this move; in particular, apps that allow customers to explore products, such as how they look, to check stock, and request sizes. Additionally, the help of staff can be asked for; only if and when it suits the consumer. Baron gives the example of fashion retailer Browns East, which has an in-app feature to allow shoppers to message staff when they are in-store.

Baron explains: “Whether its zero-touch tech that allows people to review and takeaway content on their own devices or app connected stores that let people privately call for assistance only when they want it, design it for the introvert and everyone will be a winner.”

5. Fulfilled by phygital life

Finally, the advances in digital technology, particularly AI, provide the potential for customers to have unique virtual shopping experiences. Baron discusses the Superpersonal app, which captures the users face and marries it to a body with similar physical proportions, allowing customers to try on clothes virtually.

She also gives the example of Puma’s in-store experience at its site in New York. Dubbed the 'Skill Cube', shoppers' movements are followed and are introduced to a virtual reality version of a major sporting figure to give them a virtual training session.

Baron says: “The power of fantasy, exploration, and even reinvention of identity is thrusting the value of illusion sky high. So from virtual fit concepts deploying deep fake tech to physical spaces where you can try virtual things, embrace mixed reality tech that allows your fans to access things that would simply be impossible in real life.”

More than simply selling

The main message to the industry is that the retail sector needs to ensure it is about much more than simply selling products to customers. For people to be encouraged back to stores and spend, retailers must think very differently about the types of services they are offering. As Baron concludes: “Retail is becoming a key pillar in how we conduct ourselves, how we flush out our identities, how we communicate, how we congregate with communities, how we learn and for younger audiences, even how we make money.”