As retailers deal with the complexities of reopening brick-and-mortar stores, the safety of both employees and customers is, naturally, a top priority. Associates and customers who may be skittish about returning to stores will need solid reassurance that their in-store shopping experience won’t pose a danger to themselves or others.
But COVID-19’s impact on store design will last well beyond the pandemic’s end, according to Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of The Lionesque Group and a Principal at MG2. Consumers who have gotten a taste of fast, seamless curbside pickup and BOPIS transactions will come to expect similarly high levels of omnichannel alignment in the post-COVID era.
Looking further ahead, store designers will need to support these types of convenience-focused customer journeys as well as more leisurely, discovery-based shopping trips. New (or newly popular) technologies such as AR and interactive kinetic screens, which react to motion without needing to be touched, could become popular parts of in-store offerings.
“We’re seeing new consumer habits being formed now,” said Gonzalez in a video interview with Alicia Esposito, Senior Content Strategist at Retail TouchPoints. “Ordering groceries online, curbside pickup and BOPIS had been underpenetrated before COVID-19, but now people will know that these types of seamless fulfillment opportunities exist, and they will expect that same level of fluidity going forward.”
Store layouts will need to be optimized for multiple types of shopper journeys. “There might be one shopper that ordered ahead and just wants to get in and out quickly; there could be another that ordered ahead but wants to try the item on; and yet another one that still wants the discovery-based in-store experience,” said Gonzalez. “The challenge becomes, how do we create an environment where the first two can be serviced very efficiently, but others experience the ‘surprise and delight’ of experiential retail?”
‘We Can’t Rely On Historical Data’
Retail store designers and operations executives will need to base their short-term and long-term decision-making on freshly gathered data. “Deep analytics will be more important than ever, because retailers can’t rely on historical data in this case,” Gonzalez explained. For example, retailers will need sophisticated analytics to study customer traffic patterns, going well beyond simply calculating how many people can be inside the store and still maintain social distancing.
Basic traffic counting “doesn’t account for the actual customer flow and journey, their interactions with store associates, whether a person stays longer in section ‘A’ or section ‘B’, the paths they are taking and how the retailer can optimize that flow,” said Gonzalez. “It also doesn’t account for how traffic patterns ebb and flow throughout the day or the week. It will be even more important to layer that in as you’re rethinking store design.”
Other types of solutions that could become in-store tech stars include:
- Augmented reality (AR) to improve the efficiency and cleanliness of fitting rooms: “A lot of this technology has gotten stronger in areas like color translation and more accurate body fitting, but it’s still seen as something more for beauty retailing,” said Gonzalez. “Retail is still on a learning curve when it comes to fitting for clothes.”
- Kinetic technology that senses body movements to trigger new content on displays rather than relying on touch. “If this technology becomes more accessible from a pricing standpoint, it could be viable,” Gonzalez noted, “but a lot of the underlying tech ecosystem needs to come together for this to work.”
- Greater use of anti-microbial materials such as copper: “We’re still doing our own research and discovery on this, asking whether we can use more copper on surfaces, what the costs would be and whether it’s tough to implement in a real-world environment.”
The pandemic could jump-start the use of these solutions because of consumers’ changing behaviors. “A lot of the cost evaluation for any new technology involves the question ‘Will consumers adopt this?’,” said Gonzalez. “The good news is they are adopting this now, because they are forced to.
“We’re also seeing tech vendors work more closely with brands to implement these technologies in a seamless way,” Gonzalez added. “Some solution providers are saying ‘Take this free for the first three months to get it up and running, and then we’ll charge you a monthly fee after that.’”
Brand Identity Remains Critical
Even during the initial, more safety-focused phase of store reopenings, retailers “don’t have to sacrifice their brand,” said Gonzalez. “Retailers need to remember that it’s still an experience they’re providing, without seeming like they are making fun or taking things lightly.”
Gonzalez recommends that retailers think about providing brand messaging at the customer touch points that still exist: “What’s the signage like as they pull into the parking lot for curbside pickup? Is there some kind of surprise and delight that can be communicated in the store’s windows, maybe an uplifting or inspiring message? Windows are still one of the most powerful storytelling tools retailers have.
“A lot of times visual merchandising teams are not prioritized, but they are really important now,” Gonzalez added. “Even at curbside, that’s the retailer’s three-dimensional moment. What messaging are you putting in there to communicate from your brand lens, and then how do you layer in the technology for the in-store experience?”
Most of all, retailers need to be agile. “Retailers need to learn fast from data, digest it, iterate and be nimble,” said Gonzalez. “Consumers know we’re going through a process, and they will accept some of the ‘quick-and-dirty’ learnings for now, but at some point they will need to feel better about shopping in-store.”
Access the complete video interview here.