design:retail | May 19, 2020 by Dimple Manghani
Our world has swiftly been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has touched all corners of the world and all industries, leading to closures of public spaces at the expense of the global economy. Retail has been significantly affected, as stores worldwide have shuttered while locations providing essential goods and services must cope with increased demand and inventory shortages. Physical retail was already being challenged over the past 10 years as the emerging behaviors of millennial shoppers, global competition, and technology acceleration pushed retailers to invest more heavily in their online presence and ecommerce offerings. The symbiotic relationship between digital and physical retail was revealed as brands searched for the balance between online purchasing’s convenience and the in-store environment’s social and interactive experience. In this new era of experiential retail, physical stores began acting as a brand introduction to wider audiences. Now, the next evolution of the retail experience will be defined by a global crisis that is forcing all of us to reconsider and reimagine public spaces like never before.
Most shoppers have experienced anxiety and discomfort when shopping during the pandemic due to the amount of people in an enclosed space and the number of items that must be carried and disinfected. To mitigate these anxieties, the design industry must step up to the challenge of creating safer spaces that put consumers at ease. Consumers will likely gravitate toward more open and fresh spaces that are capable of providing room to browse. Stores that do not look cluttered and create breathing room will entice customers, while there may be a resurgence of outdoor malls across the country. By implementing design and operational features to make spaces feel and appear clean, such as installing visible sanitation hubs, altering the store layout to support physical distancing, or creating one-way routes, shoppers see the efforts of the design team and feel more comfortable entering. Technology can automate some of the necessary changes for smoother customer experiences. Heat sensors can manage crowd influxes and control when customers can enter a store; automated doors eliminate the high-touch surface of door handles; facial recognition can expedite touch-less checkout; lowered push door buttons can be pushed with feet instead of hands.
Many of the technology integrations that have already been installed in retail spaces can be repositioned for customer hygiene. Prior to the pandemic, experiential retail was dependent on interactive technology installations, such as social media walls and mirrors equipped with augmented reality, as well as software developments that culminated into the brand’s seamless omnichannel experiences. Now the needs of the customer have drastically changed and retailers are shifting from an accessibility mindset to an accountability mindset. Developments once implemented for the excitement of innovation and engagement can be adapted and marketed now as features of cleanliness and caution. Sephora’s digital mirrors that once served as a fun way to test make up virtually may now be the only way makeup can be sampled in-store. Brand mobile apps, RFID and Bluetooth technology allow customers to pay for items, redeem exclusive rewards and get store information directly to their smartphone without touching keypads, money or coupon cards. CRM tablets allow store representatives to check store inventory, request sizes to fitting rooms, and connect other team members for further customer assistance, and limit direct interaction for themselves and customers without sacrificing a helpful customer experience. The evolution of omnichannel experiences will accelerate as retailers invest in experiences that reduce the need for physical interaction in store.
New social constructs have always shifted purchasing habits, unavoidably forcing retailers to respond to and anticipate the behaviors and values of their future audiences. The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be yet another major change for the retail industry, promising more stringent guidelines focused on both individual and collective well-being. Pop-ups, in-store events and exclusive, curated experiences had been brands’ preferred methods to connect with new and established markets, but suddenly retailers had to reconsider how to build and comfort their communities during a global health crisis. As shops begin to reopen, retailers have thought out of the box to welcome their customers back while maintaining their safety. Designers continue to partner with brands to provide agile retail spaces that can be adjusted to match the shifting needs of public health. In store events may be on hiatus indefinitely, but digital events can still offer the sense of connection, engagement, and excitement audiences crave. Gradually in store events will return with limited capacity and social media broadcasts for those at home, blending the digital and physical experience while maintaining social distance. Once in-store shopping returns in full force, this combination of physical and digital retail will have bridged audiences, inviting them to come to the physical locations with their newfound comfort and freedom.
At the very heart of the shopping experience is still the human connection. Humans crave interaction and connection. Just as people build personal relationships and communities, they gravitate towards brands that align with their lifestyle, values, and expression. Experiential retail gained notoriety as a way for brands to form personal bonds with their audiences because it allowed for brands and audiences to better understand and empathize with each other. While in-person shopping has been halted, the desire for connection has been heightened. The challenge will be finding ways to bring people together while making sure they also feel safe and comfortable. With the help of sensory cleanliness efforts, digital campaigns and events, and omnichannel experience updates, retailers can create welcoming public spaces that protect their customers and the public health.