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How the pandemic has changed the retail experience

David Schripsema

By David Schripsema



Retailers have a unique opportunity to reach new customers post-pandemic as they return to in-store shopping through customer service and experiences.

You’ve changed, we’ve changed, everything has changed, and things may continually change because of it. Here are three big takeaways from how the pandemic has impacted the retail experience:

  • Tech has taken over, but brick-and-mortar is not dead.
  • The customer experience and journey has shifted, pay attention to their shifting needs and assist them where you can.
  • Embrace change and the opportunity to capture a new virtual market.

What’s changed in the past 18 months? 

The “New Normal.” Once in a generation. Extraordinary circumstances. An incredibly difficult year. Heroes work [at your grocery store/coffee shop/etc.] 
The zeitgeist is rife with these phrases describing the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic had on society between March of 2020 and…. well, whenever you’re reading this.
If you’re anything like 75% of consumers in the United States, you’ve changed the way you shop and aren’t likely to revert to the way things were in The Before Time. The pandemic has changed our collective shopping habits. This is somewhat unusual since most people don’t change their shopping habits much after their college years. Yet, we saw four years’ worth of growth in e-commerce between Q1 2020 and Q2 2020and while that rate of growth hasn’t kept up since then, we certainly haven’t gone back to the way things were.
So what does that mean for retailers trying to thrive in 2021 and beyond?

Brick and mortar isn’t dead 

I’d argue that the reports of physical retail’s death are largely exaggerated. Sure, it’s been in decline for several years, malls are closing, and brick-and-mortar stores can feel like relics from a bygone era. At the same time, holding a product in your hand and asking a real live person who can see your questions about that thing is going to take a long time (and the technology does not yet exist) to replace. Seeing a shirt or dress perfectly fitted on a model is very different from the way it looks on my body. There’s a need for a physical place to touch those things.
Like Ron Johnson, former head of Apple Retail, some people think that the store experience can be brought to your home. While it certainly can for individual products and curated selections, the inspiration that comes from seeing well-crafted clothing displays, or the feeling you get from seeing a motorcycle on a plinth overlooking a collection of rugged gear designed to explore the world, is hard to recreate at home. 

Your people are your competitive advantage

Huge Natural Language Processing (NLP) advancements have been made in the last decade, especially since the beginning of 2020 with OpenAI’s GPT-3. We’re getting to the point where chatbots can at least understand most queries thrown at them, probably with a pretty good idea of the temperament of the person sending them, too. However, we’re still many years away from a chatbot using its own judgment to provide a policy exception or algorithms capable of making personalized recommendations based on apparel worn in trending TV shows. In both cases, the technologies for each individual step exist, but stitching all the required information together and making a judgment call based on experience is still better done by humans and our exceptional knack for pattern recognition.
With that in mind, hiring stellar people, empowering them with technology that disappears so they can do the work you’re paying them to do, trusting them to use good judgment in every interaction, and treating them as well as you can afford for the work that they do so that they stick around is the best possible investment you can make in your business.

There will be fewer, but far better stores. The stores that thrive will need to tap into emotion, human connection, discovery and community. Brick-and-mortar retail will become a high-touch, sensory-driven experience. There’s an opportunity for retailers to start innovating with the physical space again. -Rosalyn Page

It’s all about the experience

From ensuring that customers feel safe and comfortable entering your store when we’re all still struggling to remember what the bottom halves of people’s faces look like to having an environment that inspires people to make an actual purchase, people are hungry to leave their homes and have interesting experiences again. It also means serving customers on their terms. If you have a physical store where you can’t return an online purchase efficiently and don’t have the ability to accept contactless payments, a customer might leave your store with a worse perception of your brand than when you walked in. Given that it takes 12 positive experiences to repair the damage caused by a single unresolved negative one, that’s an outcome you should go to great lengths to avoid. Missing the capability to do buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) might not even get that customer into your doors, to begin with. However, BOPIS especially has become the expectation, not the exception. It grew 259% year-over-year by August 2020 and 43.7% of DC360’s Top 500 Brands now offer curbside pickup compared to 6.9% at the end of 2019.*

All of these experiences require a blend of solid people and functional technology to execute well.
Before a customer walks into your storeand more importantly if you don’t have a physical presence (yet)having a web presence that’s performant on mobile (where 70%+ of all your online traffic comes from,) provides options to shop on the customer’s terms, and fundamentally actually works to check out without putting obstacles in the way will be crucial. If your customer doesn’t trust the experience you’re providing them online where you have time and processes to triple-check and finely craft everything they see, what reason do they have to give you their business?
There’s a spate of new technologies on the horizon that have the potential to even further change consumers’ relationships with your brand. Augmented reality has the potential to change their appearance without needing a new outfit or virtually trying something on. Self-driving vehicles could mean your BOPIS teams are putting purchased items in the trunks of empty cars. Electric cars provide an opportunity to have an audience captive for 30 mins while their cars are charging, craving a reason to stretch their legs and window shop. Ultra-wideband chips in phones allow for pinpoint wayfinding within a crowded mallhopefully to your store and the items on your shelves.

It’s time to capitalize 

There’s no going back to the way things were, nor should we pine for that. This is a once-in-a-generation (we hope!) opportunity to capture customers that might not have considered your brand if you didn’t have a physical presence in their area. But now that shopping is happening online, your brand could be their new favorite. With 75% of consumers changing their shopping habits, the time to capture new market share and create loyal customers is now. Provide differentiating in-store experiences, and exceptional service, and help your customers feel known. The best customer service experience a retailer can offer is to help a customer make a purchase. Make sure you’re set up to deliver that.

*Source: ROI Revolution Blog, March 2020