Next Store | COVID-19: Can We Make Retail Great Again?

Tips for retailers in communicating safety to their customers
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Posted August 18, 2020

During the past few months since I attended EuroShop in Düsseldorf, Germany, the world and our profession has seen a seismic shift in everything we held normal and believed to be our future. I had no idea when I flew home to Los Angeles in late February that I would not return to my office for months, not attend upcoming events in person and not be able to go shop at my favorite stores here in Southern California where I reside. Welcome to the new paradigm of COVID-19, where the “Next Store” mantra has taken on a whole new meaning.

It should be said that if you review this column’s archives you’ll find plenty of information that is still relevant and should not be thrown out for fear it’s out of date. From tech advances at CES earlier this year to the innovations brought to light in the EuroShop column, the resources discussed can and will bring solutions ideal to post-COVID retail.

Our industry resources/suppliers have many tools to help us “rethink” the physical experience. To answer the question posed in the headline: Can we make retail great again? Yes. It’s actually what we all do quite well. 

As a reader, you know that I’ve worked in the multidisciplinary architectural and design space for most of my career, and I’m a champion of applying technology to customer environments as well as to the way we produce architectural documents. For this issue, I’d like to share some ideas on how to make customers returning to your stores more comfortable and help ensure that, regardless of a vaccine, you’re prepared now and forever.

The Customer Journey
What’s changed? The obvious is that we’re all now familiar with the term “social distancing.” Retailers have explored ways to communicate to shoppers new social distancing protocols including how to queue in the checkout to maintain the recommended 6-foot gap and how to navigate “one-way” aisles in big box and grocery stores.

Most of what I saw initially looked amateur and was not within the brand standard – understandable at the beginning of the pandemic. However, remember that this matters to your customer! While we all appreciate the pressures, and in many cases the need to act quickly, what must remain first and foremost is that customer experience is rooted in confidence. Seeing blue tape on the floor versus proper vinyl three months into this situation makes the customer question the quality of measures the merchant is undertaking to keep them safe.

Whether you’re a specialty quick-serve restaurant (QSR) or a boutique or national merchant, re-scripting the customer journey is critical to your survival. Thus it’s important to dust off your space plans and ensure that every point of the journey is refreshed and well communicated, beginning at the main entrance. My recommendation is to place a totem sign that includes your logo and states in simple, bullet-point form what you’ve done to make doing business in the store environment safe. Set expectations clearly and avoid handwritten signs, which I’ve seen here in my own city. The current pandemic is no excuse to look like you don’t know the experience business! 

Your signage should also include facts about your HVAC system – shoppers want to know what you’re doing to recycle and clean the air. Other key items to include: cleaning routines, employee health checks, density facts, BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in store) procedures, and return policies.

When speaking of “density” it’s important to note that there are occupancy code limits as well as COVID occupancy guidelines to consider. Customers need to see that you’re managing a contained environment that allows them the greatest chance of staying healthy. Use brand graphics to offer your customers and staff a visualization of what this looks like.  If, after all, no one has the vision it’s harder to follow and believe.  

Cleaning is also something that should be communicated, including the routine, frequency and what you’re doing to keep high-touch areas sanitized. I’m dismayed at point-of-sale systems that accept Apple Pay yet require you to enter a PIN code or signature, rendering a “contactless” payment method pointless.

Out in Front
Retailers must rethink storefront design and plan for a new flexible feature whereby a pick-up window is built into the system. Though I recognize the cost repercussions of such a wholesale change, in my opinion, BOPIS is here to stay and having “early or late pick-up-only hours” may well become a new norm. Think in the “Dutch door” style of Main Street and keep product moving while offering customers a new way to interface with your brand. I love how Chick-fil-A adapted to the lockdown with app order pick-up at the main entrance, for example.

Taking Inventory
As I mentioned earlier, clean air matters now more than ever, and we’re seeing new mandates by governmental agencies requiring COVID-19-manageable systems in the news. Be prepared to communicate to your shopper what your systems are doing to deliver healthy air and know that a well-devised building information modeling (BIM) strategy is paramount to being in command of knowing everything about what comprises your environment.

Very few brands have a sound archive they can reference to determine, for instance, if their HVAC systems can handle new COVID-standard discussions. As I mentioned earlier, clean air matters now more than ever, and this should be easy to communicate to your shopper if you understand the importance of a BIM. Absent of that, all of the savings you thought you’d achieve staying with AutoCAD is beyond lost, in my opinion. 

Retail is inherently great, whether talking about a QSR, accessory boutique or big box store. But thinking through these key areas will strengthen your relationship with your customer as well as position your brand to enact changes based on good data and systems. 

Brian is a Director at Los Angeles-based Corbis (www.corbisstudio.com). Follow him on Twitter @CorbisStudio.