Retail Reset

A Virtual Forum Addressing COVID-19 Recovery Strategies

The Future of Retail, Reimagined

  • June 25, 2020 at 8:36 AM EDT
  • By Anthony Simon, Ware Malcomb
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Even before COVID-19, the retail industry was already going through significant challenges, disruption and transformation. That has all been turned on its head. Get ready for the “new abnormal.”

Going forward there will be a fundamental shift in consumers’ reengagement and behavior towards physical environments, including the size and program of space. Ultimately, what is truly important in commerce has changed.

Based on our internal discussions, industry thought leadership and the data we have collected throughout the marketplace, we have pulled our sketchbooks out for ideation. Here is a glimpse into the future of retail, reimagined.

The Increase Of Drive-Through, Online Order Stations And Pedestrian Pickups

Social distancing and quarantining have driven the necessity to connect even more virtually. Consumers will continue to utilize e-Commerce platforms, including the use of delivery services and apps, takeout and curbside pickup. Brands will make modifications to storefronts, parking lots and base building envelopes to strengthen the “pick up” points. This is not new but will become more of a stronger necessity and a regular part of programming.

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Curbside Appeal

Retailers will need to evaluate how to bring the storefronts and exteriors alive even more. This will include a range of strategies, from pedestrian pickup windows to digital motion-activated window shopping to shopping from the outside with the assistance of a staff member navigating the store from the inside.

The New Role Of The Welcoming Concierge

Before entering a space, consumers need to have the assurance that it is safe, that the brand has made all the necessary preparations and taken the required precautions. The customer service representatives or “welcoming concierge” will need to have a higher sense of empathy, of awareness to health and safety, and be able to shepherd consumers through “the new experience.”

The Autonomous Shopping Journey

The pandemic has raised acute awareness of the spread of germs and viruses. As a result, the need for designing environments to accommodate contactless experiences and transactions is under way. Components of space will cater to “Ambient Intelligence,” creating smart spaces — voice activated, motion sensor, and tied into your smartphone — all while not having to engage with physical customer service. This technology will also serve to collect data on consumer needs, habits and behavior.

Allow For Elbow Room And ‘Personal Space’

There needs to be a rethink on square footage allocation and crowd capacity within space. In places of assembly, from restaurants to retail to entertainment venues, crowds and side-stepping to move about will be second guessed and seriously reconsidered. Design considerations might include physical (yet transparent) barriers, screens, less merchandise and more generous spacing between displays, floor fixtures, seating and tables.

High Design Hygiene

Brands must step up with modifications and enhancements to their store design program. They need to reestablish confidence and comfort for both their staff and consumers. Careful thought must be given to what truly makes the environment safe, in cleanliness, health and hygiene.

Design must consider materials that have antimicrobial surfaces while still being aesthetically pleasing. Dedicated areas will be required to accommodate sanitizing and the distribution of personal protective equipment.

With public knowledge and approval, entry points into stores can act as sterilizing “chambers” and thermo-scanners for purposes of decontamination or scanning for fever.

Crowd Control

To manage crowd control, stores could implement data tracking, beacons and heat mapping technologies to monitor the number and capacity of consumers and employees entering and navigating a store. Another option is to set storefronts back and provide outdoor amenities while customers wait, or partner with like-minded adjacent cobrands to bridge an experience.

Digital And Analog Brand Storytelling And Community Connections

After this period of intense retrospection, brands should emerge with a clear understanding of their core values and communicate them with absolute transparency and authenticity.

Consumers will hold to a discerning spending behavior and only focus on what is truly important to them. Relevant community connection points will be essential, and the reference to this in every store environment will be key. The need for space is multi-functional and now includes the importance of holding many small businesses together within a small community. It is no longer just about transactions or capturing “Instagrammable” moments.

The Store On The Move – ‘Go Where the Need Is’ Retail

Will permanent “anchored down” space with behemoth square footprints be necessary?

Since the pop-up store concept entered the industry vocabulary as early as 1990, it has taken on a whole new life. As we now have migrated more to e-Commerce beyond choice and for necessity, digitally native brands will want to revisit “testing the waters” with more mobile, flexible and temporary space.

The majority of small and startup brands will have limited capital to sustain long term leases. Brands can be ever-changing. Multiple small businesses and retailers can live under one roof, creating new opportunities for stores to be compact and mobile to travel to other neighborhoods. This will give them the ability to share their story locally, with mobility. Think the Airbnb of retail shops.

Retail’s Tectonic Shift

Retail “as we know it,” will not rebound. Rather, as one industry friend put it, retail will undergo a “tectonic shift.” Sadly, we are already seeing bankruptcies and debt closures, and there will be more. Some brands will not survive the impact of COVID-19.

But the world of retail is also incredibly resilient and adaptive. What rises from this crisis is up to all of us as designers, innovators, strategic thinkers and new brand enthusiasts. To thrive in the “new abnormal,” we must shed our traditional sense of retail, restaurant and hospitality design and reimagine the future.


Anthony Simon is Director, Retail Architecture & Design for Ware Malcomb, responsible for the growth and management of the Retail Architecture & Design services for clients regionally. He brings over 25 years of experience in customer-focused design to his role. Utilizing a holistic design approach for environments, his project expertise spans the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. Simon has worked for boutique brand strategy agencies, retail architecture/design firms, and on the client side on for multi-format retail, store design and planning. Simon is also a proven leader in the areas of business development, client services, oversight of national and regional teams and staff mentorship.

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A Virtual Forum Addressing COVID-19 Recovery Strategies

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