The End of the World as We Know It … and I Feel Fine

How retailers can reach consumers in the post-COVID era
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Posted September 16, 2020

A sense of proportion can be hard to maintain when the events we directly experience are wide-ranging enough to be truly global. Our sense of personal scale becomes distorted, and we find it difficult to align with our worldview and maintain a sense of normalcy and order in everyday life. We become disorientated and lose focus in a whirlwind of fight-or-flight instincts.

Let’s not for a moment believe that people queuing patiently for hours outside re-opened shops is a return to normalcy; but rather a genuine human desire for instinctive and recognizable patterns of behavior and finding comfort in the familiar. It’s understandable in context, but not the reignition of the economy that the U.K. (and U.S.) needs.

Though globally resonant, what these circumstances are doing is accelerating and amplifying opportunities we have felt in recent years to drive long-overdue fundamental and positive changes to high street retail.  Thankfully we are still in the time frame to make these, driven by several factors.

How have we as consumers reacted to the crisis?

Amplified needs and desires: The crisis has amplified needs and stimulated aspiration with enforced change and helped us to revaluate what is important in our lives. A lot of our frustration now is having the means to realize these ambitions. We saw similar amplification in the last recession, where quality and experience dominated our evolution of retail, goods and services.

Increased our sensitivity (and reduced our patience?): When threatened, it’s helpful to remember that an individual’s fundamental psychological behavioral patterns come into play at a base level. We respond disproportionately, with our sensitivity to disgust increasing and so, too, our desire for increased cleanliness and self-dependency. This is why, for instance, there was a sudden rush on toilet paper, and we all reverted to cooking at home.

At the societal end of the scale, we measure our self worth and revaluate our place in the world. Social identity norms are challenged – essential workers are heroes, law enforcement vilified, and minorities coalesce in reaction. Social media, more than ever, becomes a fundamental platform to perpetuate this and expose social injustice and invoke reaction.

The more it changes the more it stays the same: Psychologically, the elements of our brain that we use to recognize and form human friendships and attachments are the same as those which we use when interacting with brands. This is why it is now so important for brands to use the same strategies that humans use to make friends, creating a genuine attachment as well as tapping into genuine emotions.

What are the opportunities?

Align through genuine engagement: Customers are evaluating and looking at brands as they would their friends – especially in behavior during distancing. They are assessing them, and establishing whether they fit into their own belief system and are worthy of their respect. They can spot “woke” companies but they can also spot virtue signaling and disingenuous actions. This evaluation has always been a rallying cry from consultancies – make genuine engagement a key requirement.

Agility (and confidence): With COVID-19 enforcing social distancing and controlled customer flow in the short term, brands and services will have to realign their real estate due to customer caution or a preference for online shopping. Transparent safety measures and reassurance will help deliver this confidence. Digital signage communicating air quality, customer flow, in-store head counts and store cleanliness will play an important role in this.

Long-term, “choice” will be key to futureproofing against further pandemics or constantly evolving customer trends.

Supporting strategies such as BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up in Store) encourage customers by setting up specific pick-up windows will drive a need for stock and storage to be more efficiently managed. This will support showrooming, promote experiential retailing and drive opportunity for pop-up or smaller estate requirements. Brands can stimulate their customers in fresh and interesting ways and in quicker cycles.

As our physical world became smaller due to travel restrictions we became more reliant on local shops and services, which strengthened our relationships with them. As many of us continue to work from home, we will continue to utilize and appreciate shops in our local communities, which will drive more life and footfall onto our local high streets – though we will see an evolution of these to support local communities that are multi-faceted, and offer additional diversity. Of course, this sort of outcome requires collaboration with retailers, landlords, local authorities and the local community on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.

Confirmation: It’s time for retailers to reset the promotional stance. Due to the public’s ever-increasing consciousness about consumption levels – sustainability and environmental issues, brands need to carefully review discounting and focus more on quality and governance of products.

How do we respond?

Alignment: There is a close focus on brands, which need to proportionately and genuinely clarify their social position, their environmental position and reflect that they understand what is important to their customer base. Most importantly of all, they need to be able to demonstrate it – an example of this being LEON, which, amongst others, set about delivering not just free but healthy meals to U.K.’s National Health Service workers, which reinforces its brand values about heathy fast food.

Generate genuine attachment: In the U.K., U.S. and other countries, mental health is under increasing strain. Factors such as a feeling of isolation for some who struggle to work from home, or those who are anxious about their financial security and future is adding to the pressure. Being cautious about expenditure is making consumers more considerate about consumption. Brands will need to provide value and demonstrate compassion and a feeling of worth to reassure and engage with consumers, potentially through creating membership and communities where relevant.

Be seamless – use technology: Front-end technology retains its role unchanged as a system of communication and delivery of the core message – nothing else.

True innovation, generated in crisis, can deliver lasting potential when executed well – virtual festivals are replacing cancelled events by celebrating live music and performances across many platforms. We know that these will never take the place of a live festival, but with current advancements in virtual reality (VR), may continue as events in their own right, post-COVID.

More prosaically, with the increase in home delivery, technology has allowed efficiency in supply chains and logistics that allow smaller brands and suppliers the same reach as the larger. Additionally, the increase in data around buying habits means we have more information to analyze and make positive use from. Focusing on aligning customer needs and corresponding stock, allows for a more accurate provision of fulfilling these needs.

Whatever happens, the world has insurmountably changed, but there will always be a need for social interaction and access to goods and services. Brands that adapt quickly to answer these needs will be the ones to flourish in these new times.

James Breaks is a U.K. chartered Architect, Designer and Creative Head of rpa:group, a multidisciplinary and global consultancy. With over 30 years of experience working with an impressive range of independent and blue chip clients such as Adidas, Foot Locker and Tommy Hilfiger, James has seen the retail landscape evolve immeasurably. He takes pride in building enduring relationships with his clients and enhancing a brand’s fundamental understanding of their customers, to drive genuine engagement. James talks widely at leading retail industry events such as Euroshop, Europe’s largest international retail show, EHi and U.K. and Polish Retail Design Expos. He is a commentator for retail design media podcasts and a regular judge for the annual In-Store Asia Retail Design Awards.