It is easy to look at the negative aspects and data that is continuously being released when it comes to COVID-19 and the effects that it has had on businesses. Retail has been under the microscope more than ever, and even prior to the pandemic the million-dollar question always was being asked: Is retail dead? Retail will only be dead if businesses and brands don’t embrace change. If they resisted it before, now they simply cannot. Both small and large businesses alike are being forced to look in the mirror and to make changes and updates. However, through all of the negative storylines, most retailers have shown their ability to adapt and to not only be innovative, but also resilient.
A Curbside Pick-Me-Up
“Curbside pick-up” quickly became a household phrase during quarantine. This service provided to be a relatively easy system to implement for most retailers in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, there is always room for improvement as this type of service becomes more frequently used. Now it will be important for retailers to maintain speed, accuracy and efficiency when it comes to curbside pick-up as lockdowns subside or continue. New and existing store designs will have new elements added to the in-store checklist that considers adequate space and proper shopper flow -- not only for customers, but for vehicles too. Integrating top-notch curb appeal will be top of mind. Stores that perhaps didn’t have window displays, or make use of them, will now have to view the exterior of their stores as a very big opportunity to connect with guests.
COVID-19 brought on many restrictions and forced shopkeepers to be innovative when working with and around guidelines and government mandates. It has been a stressful juggling act for most people to stay on top of health and safety measures, while dealing with the regular day-to-day functions of running a business. What did emerge were “appointment only” and reservation-style shopping opportunities. Personalized and private bookings allowed shoppers to slow down and glean expert advice through one-on-one consultations. “By appointment only” signs will be here to stay, and when combined with regular store hours, it’s the perfect way to offer specialized services like personal shopping or having styling experts that can provide a sense of exclusivity, not to mention efficiency.
Messaging and Tone of Voice
Engaging customers at any point in the shopping journey is essential, but during a pandemic this means offering up some empathy -- not all-purpose promotional cliche, but real conversation. Typical marketing vernacular isn’t going to be as impactful right now. And even if it was, it isn’t really the best way to deliver the kind of delicate communication the current situation demands. Consumers have been reading daily reports, news briefings, revised regulations and restrictions at an alarming rate. Store environments, in many cases, have been spaces for following arrows, lining up, keeping a distance and being overwhelmed with signs of what not to do. Naturally, some store owners want to safeguard themselves, their employees and their customers, so they put up signs asking consumers to wear face masks. There have been many creative versions of signage, especially when stores have not had the time to keep up with messaging; of course the odd and deeply dreaded handwritten signs have appeared. In a post-COVID-19 retail world, customers will expect well thought-out and carefully streamlined communication. Tone of voice and the use of simple graphics or symbols will be a deal breaker or deal maker.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
Perhaps one of the most heart-warming angles that has emerged during the pandemic was a shift to supporting local businesses. While there is room in the market for larger, trusted brands, buying local will continue to be a focus for quite some time. The specialized and small town feeling that a customer experiences when shopping local cannot easily be forgotten. Big-box stores will now need to offer exceptional customer service and invest in coaching and training employees while maintaining the usual standards of stock issues, compelling store environments and accuracy with orders. The more a business can save and recognize consumer data and the more detailed and specialized it is, the better the results are for the brand.
Pushing the Envelope
COVID-19 has souped-up all things virtual, boosting industries like retail well into the future. As per IBM’s 2020 U.S. Retail Index report, the pandemic has fast-tracked the shift to digital shopping by about five years. With features such as virtual “try-before-you-buy” or “virtual shop tours," luxury brands like Chanel and Dior, among others, are experimenting with augmented reality (AR) to create memorable and immersive virtual experiences for their customers. Of course, these technologies and services aren’t solely meant for the high-fashion stores, they’re also being used by brands like Home Depot and IKEA. In the case of home goods stores, the customer can plan, design and experience their space before their products are delivered. Thus, shoppers have all of the information they need to decide if they want to commit to multiple big purchases.
The work-from-home movement has provided many consumers with a more flexible daily schedule. Regular retail shopping hours have shifted due to necessity, and operating times or peak shopping times may ultimately shift for good. Regular 9-to-5 workers often had to wait until after 6 p.m. during the week or go out on the weekend to pick up last-minute items. Now, scheduling flexibility allows some workers time to escape the house. Although it is a challenging task to undertake, it is important that brands are aware of their high-traffic times online, even when there may be scattered occurrences and varied demographics viewing content. Planning timely online messages will be essential when fighting for and capturing attention.
Perhaps, there has never been a better time to problem solve and up the ante in our retail spaces. This “slow time” in retail could be thought of as a gift. This precious gift of time, if used thoughtfully, can provide brands a shiny light at the end of the tunnel. By leveraging these six suggestions, retailers will have a starting point for determining to recover and thrive post pandemic. One thing is for certain: When people are ready, retail will be the best place to be!
Diane Spiridoulias is a passionate professor in the Visual Merchandising Arts program at Sheridan College in Canada. As a seasoned art director with over 18 years of experience, as well as maintaining a proven track record for translating complex ideas into slick, and successful designs for the beauty and fashion retail sectors, Diane is skilled in developing external client relationships, graphic design and styling. The diversity of her work reveals her ability to apply design skills in innovative ways that elevate brand and design excellence. Previous work experiences include Seven Continents and Sirens, a division of YM Inc. Diane holds a diploma from Sheridan in Visual Merchandising Arts and is currently working towards obtaining her Bachelor of Professional Arts Communication Studies at Athabasca University.
Karen Kritzer is a professor at Sheridan College where she is also part of the Program Support Team for various design courses. This career path has allowed her to balance teaching alongside freelance work, keeping her up to speed with the industry. As a small business owner and freelance visual merchandiser, Karen can relate to the everyday challenges that retailers face. Working with both top name brands and small independent retailers has allowed Karen to create unique action plans that achieve results for her clients. Just shy of 10 years with IKEA Canada, she worked as part of the Communications and Interior Design Team. Recently her work with CanGift Toronto as a seminar host, paired with retail consultations, has allowed her to keep in contact with entrepreneurs and retailers from across the country.