Retailers sometimes move at a near-glacial pace, planning out huge builds with extreme precision — and sometimes years in advance. With costs being what they are, it only makes sense to map out every aspect of a project down to the finest detail.
The challenge is that this approach to retail lacks agility, and COVID-19 has certainly revealed its additional lack of sustainability. Long-term leases no longer make as much sense in this current landscape, and they might not make sense in the future, either.
This isn’t to say that planning should fall by the wayside. But any plan going forward will need to include recalibration of the shopping experience. After all, retail has been changing for years. Just consider what consumer opinions mean to a business: One shopper’s review can reach millions of people and influence shopping behaviors. The recent pandemic has done a level-set, and it highlights the importance of a retailer’s response to any given situation.
Offer Solutions way Before They’re Requested
Let’s say you have a customer. We’ll call her Jane. In this environment, you never know whether Jane learned that a relative tested COVID-19 positive — or perhaps lives or regularly interacts with an at-risk individual — and is now more tentative about in-store shopping. On the other hand, she might be absolutely stir-crazy; she might feel like walking the aisles is worth the risk. No matter which Jane shows up, you need to be prepared.
That said, it’s often better to weigh on the side of caution. In this environment, safe and secure is the best bet. And with a 20% increase in people preferring contactless offerings, retailers need the ability to respond to consumer demands quickly and efficiently.
The truth is that no one can predict the future, so you can’t do a massive overhaul — nor can you maintain slow transition cycles (especially not when Amazon eats everybody’s lunch). In order to account for uncertainty, retailers should emulate software developers and adopt an agile approach to shopping, one that focuses on iterations and testing.
For example, Walmart tests small initiatives in various pockets of the country constantly. Whether it’s through on-demand delivery by drone or inventory-scanning robots, one of the largest big-box chains is able to iterate on a variety of innovative ideas. This should provide some confidence that a smaller retailer can do the same.
Making Your Mark in the Retail Space
The question is now this: What’s a retailer to do in this changing landscape? Fortunately, options are aplenty. The following can help get you started:
1. Experiment with new store formats. Most traditional retail spaces serve a very utilitarian function. That’s not usually a problem, but today’s consumers want more experiential than transactional relationships with retailers.
As such, look for ways to reinvent shopping experiences — perhaps a no-lane, no-touch checkout option; refill stations to replenish commonly used goods such as shampoo or cleaning spray (sustainability sells, after all, to the tune of $150 billion by 2021); or omnichannel experiences that blur the digital and physical realms. A pop-up shop could also use the scarcity principle to drum up excitement for a new product. Even a “dark store,” which is a store in name only, can create some buzz. That kind of space should be dedicated to fulfilling online orders — and that’s all.
2. Create several customer journeys. The path toward purchase is rarely a linear one, and it differs from one person to the next.
If you want to meet consumers where they are, give them a choose-your-own-adventure point of entry for shopping experiences. This requires you to create a comprehensive customer journey map with all the possible touch points. That way, you accommodate people who want little human interaction while still providing attention to anyone in need of service. Think of it as personalized assistance.
For instance, Korean beauty brand Innisfree has adopted a color-coded basket system that helps designate shoppers who’d like to browse on their own, versus those who’d like help with their product selections.
3. Find alignment with marketing. We’re past planning our responses to the crisis. Now it’s about moving back into sustained operations. To do that, identify important key performance indicators for customers and their interaction with your brand. Are complaints up? Are returns up? Have you lost customers? Are you even tracking those things?
See how customers arrive at your store, gauge their satisfaction levels, analyze channel performance and monitor average conversion rates. Integrate these and other critical metrics into a dashboard, and consult with marketing to ensure you’re doing everything possible to connect (and reconnect) with customers in new and different ways.
Retail has never been a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Even when stores carry the same products, different consumers frequent those establishments. It’s all about finding what works for your store and your customers — and that requires a little trial and error on your part.
Scott T. Reese is a passionate leader, a “what’s next” enthusiast, and an arbiter of progress — with the detail-oriented, get-it-done attitude needed to make sure those big ideas are actually accomplished. He is currently serving as CTO at Harbor Retail, where he helps bring Harmonic Retail™ to life with intuitive Self-Healing Technology.™ Reese spent the first 10 years of his career learning how to be an effective, inspiring leader in the United States Marine Corps. Then he spent the past two decades collaborating to make a difference as an expert in corporate process and an effective consultant in the field of technology.