The Power and Challenge of Choice

How COVID-19 made us all omni-shoppers
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Posted November 19, 2020

I shop, therefore I am.

Or so goes the 1987 adaptation by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger of “I think, therefore I am” by French philosopher Rene Descartes. There’s a lot of depth to this if you poke into it, but I’m not going to do that here.

It dawned on me early in April that I was starved for retail therapy. Faced with non-essential retail closures, and the monotony of work-from-home, I longed for the opportunity to stroll into a store and peruse its goods. So I took to ebay. Yes, ebay, not Amazon. I feel like I have a relationship with ebay. Amazon is transactional and for staples, but ebay is for fun. But ultimately, the online experience lacked something critical for me. Most of all, though, I missed the chance conversations with sales staff and store owners.

When restrictions lifted, I headed to my happy place: an antique mall about 20 minutes away. Donning surgical mask and gloves, I entered with as much trepidation as excitement. I didn’t stay long compared to past visits, and I was certainly very aware of the other shoppers’ proximity to me the entire time. But it was so nice to be out of my house, interacting with other antique mall devotees, and seeing how the proprietor was holding up. I realized these were my people, and I had missed them.

I believe this sense of community to be the great hope of retail. We have seen people’s dedication to local business throughout this pandemic, and I believe we will continue to see this increase over time. People have an innate desire to make their neighborhoods the best that they can be, and strong retail is a critical part of that community fabric. As we push into the third quarter of this year, people continue to remain loyal to their local restaurants, and their local restaurants have rewarded them with creativity and a willingness to experiment how to serve their customers better. We must see traditional retailers do the same.

The retail journey is so different for each of us and varies even with the single individual depending on mood, need and time. Yes, time – that holy grail. I recall writing about this very thing some time ago, and how retailers had to make their harried, time-starved customers’ lives easier with frictionless transactions, etc. But a funny thing has happened during the course of quarantine: a fair number of us have received the gift of time back into our lives. No commute, some days no need to shower, and no lengthy internal debates about what to wear to the office have all contributed to the “time gained” bucket. The reward for the day-in-day-out of work-from-home has been time. And since there’s not a lot to do safely these days, a whole bunch of us have taken to the great outdoors, rediscovered the guilty pleasure of reading, and learned to once again take joy in simply being with our families.

What does this mean for retailers? They need to focus on “slow.” Slow the journey down. Merchandise your shop with products that are unique, that celebrate a style, that have a point of view. Be fearless in your buying. Then craft the experience for the person you’ve merchandised your shop for. Hire people with great, extroverted personalities who will engage with customers and be committed to their satisfaction. Don’t forget to reward your staff often. You reward your customers for their loyalty, don’t you? Your sales team deserves the same.

Online has forever secured its place as the go-to resource for staples, so brick-and-mortar must be (and can be!) something more. I do believe a (very necessary) contraction is afoot, and has been for some time, but has been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s weeding out the ubiquitous, the banal and the uninspiring. It will celebrate the unique, the unexpected and the wonderful.

The ultimate compliment for a retailer, in my opinion, is when someone refers to your store as “their happy place.” And since I actually have a few of those scattered around this country, I am optimistic that the benchmark can be achieved by any retailer that puts their heart into it. Because that is truly what it takes: heart.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s Charlotte, N.C., office, and a leader of its retail practice with more than 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.