Digital Distancing: Top 3 Ways Retailers Can Connect With In-Store Shoppers

  • July 28, 2020 at 8:17 AM EDT
  • By Andy Austin, The Industrious
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The pandemic has been a punch in the jaw for many of us in retail. The pace and scope of widespread, global change is happening across the board in retail — and it is here to stay. In fact, recent research from McKinsey finds consumers indicating they will adopt long-term behavioral changes beyond COVID-19.

Consumers have had their options severely limited — and the idea of returning to typical social behavior like retail shopping is now fraught with risk. Shoppers will want to feel safe, and will want their trusted retail partners to be part of the solution. This will drive a major change in how shoppers choose where to spend their retail dollars. A crucial new variable in a retailer’s brand trust will be the degree to which customers feel that their personal health and safety are being cared for in the retail environment.

For retailers, there is a vital need to consider new ways to attract shoppers who will increasingly become selective, scarce and discriminating. Survival in this new normal will require agility to meet new governmental mandates as well as the willingness to adapt, innovate and experiment. A retailer’s first response must be to make shoppers feel secure and welcome. And if changes are made as to how a retailer serves its customers, they need to be lasting and robust.

Retailers need to respond to the many changes brought on by the pandemic. But it also is time to seize this as an opportunity to get ahead and transform a customer’s experience for the better. There are new and innovative ways to marry personal computing devices, gesture recognition technology, merchandising creativity and inventory management to create a new world of retail that’s an inviting, engaging and safe space for thriving retail commerce — as well as the sometimes-elusive emotional connection between shoppers and brands.  

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Here’s a look at where to start:

The Front-Of-House Imperative

In the past decade or two, retailers have invested millions into back-of-house initiatives like optimizing supply chains. That’s all great — there have been drastic improvements in product fulfillment and delivery. However, now all eyes are on the front of the house. It’s all that matters.

The front-of-house must undergo a stark change — and that change has to look deliberate. Your store has to feel clean, and it has to feel socially distanced. Product has to move to back-of-house, with the promise that the items stored there are clean and sanitized.

But that doesn’t mean hiding your product. Your customers may no longer be comfortable touching every pair of jeans on display to find their size, but they will be comfortable using digital technology to replace the experience of touch. That could simply mean that a customer looks at jeans, either physically or digitally, then clicks an option on her personal mobile device, and a salesperson brings out a clean and sanitized pair in her size.

Or it could mean using beacons to trigger a message on the shopper’s mobile device about the section she’s in — “We see that you’re in the laptop section — can we sanitize a specific model and bring it to you to try?”

Still, for consumers to feel comfortable coming to your store in the first place, we need to acknowledge that shoppers will favor retailers that prioritize and deliver transparency in product availability and assortment.

That means much more than an online availability search on your web site — you need to help people navigate your store in a faster, more efficient way. As IDC researcher Alan Webber put it in a recent blog post, customers now “want and expect a clear, multi-channel journey with clear next steps and a clear outcome.”

There are dozens of things you can do that make things exciting without making the shopping experience unsafe or introducing risks. Shelf talkers, motion sensors, lighting and sound queues that respond to how a shopper moves about the store — all of these make for dynamic and lively environments using technologies available to retailers.

The Shopper As Hero

The stakes are higher now than ever. Physical safety is paramount for employees and shoppers. Underlying this is the opportunity to leverage and optimize digital technology, or what I like to refer to as digital distancing.

Personalizing the shopping experience by putting the shopper in control of it through digital distancing is creating a new phenomenon — the shopper is now the hero. By that I mean enabling shoppers to use their most trusted items — their mobile phones — to interact with a brand and create their own narrative in a store.

The mobile device becomes the digital interface for the shopper to control nearly their entire interaction with a brand — from product discovery and availability, to streamlining conversations with sales associates in-store and payment. Shoppers can now control their own story, in a “choose your own adventure” style, as they go through a store. Going to Home Depot for a fastener? A QR code can tell the shopper about which tools work best with the fastener. If you don’t have this at home, go to this aisle because you’ll need it. And here’s a video to explain how it’s used.

For shoppers, the retail experience in this new normal better be all about them. The number-one thing retailers should always be doing, especially in high-touch retail, is to make customers the star of the show. This cannot change in the face of the pandemic. It’s more important now than ever.

Mobile Device As Brand Talisman

Digital distancing is also all about content. Where are most shoppers interacting with and sharing content? That’s right, their mobile devices. To keep retail locations relevant and drive willingness to recommend, retailers need to provide curatable content to the shopper so she can align her brand.

The ability for brands to communicate messaging in an efficient and meaningful manner is paramount. There are so many places consumers can buy product, the risk may be perceived as not worth the reward of going in and getting a branded experience. Then shoppers can just go to Amazon to get what they need. Indeed, lockdown trained us all to do so. The barrier to overcome is higher than ever.

Creating experiences that enable curatable content activates the physical retail space and puts the consumer in control of how the brand matches up with her own brand. The big win is injecting retailers’ brands into the mobile device. This can mean video, product imagery, a recap of engagement — any of those things that the shopper can recall to continue the brand journey and turn into word of mouth is a huge win. The brand talisman therefore becomes the mobile device.

If retail is to survive, we have to combine the lessons of the old and brains from the new and synthesize them into a better offering that exceeds shoppers’ expectations. The most expedient and effective way to do that is through digital technology. We are going to solve social distancing with digital distancing. And the great news is shoppers already feel comfortable with it.


Andy Austin, President and Founder of The Industrious, is a retailer who also happens to have a technology background — as an executive director at AT&T stores nationwide, he led the retail rollout of the original iPhone — and if there’s an opportunity to move the language of retail forward into the digital age, he’s doing it. He loves taking the old-fashioned things that some people might overlook, and putting them together with emerging technology to build experiences that delight shoppers and brands alike.

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