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How AT&T’s Early Pandemic Experience Prepared it for a Unique Holiday Season

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Managing a product release as huge as the iPhone 12 can be a tricky proposition during the best of times, to say nothing of the challenges created during a pandemic. However, AT&T was able to draw on lessons it learned from operating during the early days of COVID-19 to make the experience safe and orderly.

AT&T already had figured out optimal ways to keep a sufficient number of its stores open without endangering customers through unsafe practices or cutting off shoppers who needed access to their phones. The company also learned how to navigate repairs and adjust operations to meet the unique requirements of the current conditions.

“At the beginning we really focused on asking, ‘How many stores do we need to keep open to serve our customers?’” said Keron Incarnato, VP, GM for the AT&T New England Market in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “For many customers their cell phone is their only form of communication to the outside world — especially for at-risk customers that were really locked down at that time.”

Some of the lessons learned during the early days of COVID-19 that the company is now carrying into the holidays include:

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  • Getting store traffic right: AT&T had to strategically choose which stores could remain open — while also ensuring each shop had enough space to handle the expected number of shoppers;
  • Designating experience coordinators: Stores are busy places, where even well-meaning shoppers or associates can accidentally breach social distancing best practices, so AT&T hired experience coordinators to maintain order and ensure shoppers have the best experience possible; and
  • Offering flexible services: Curbside and other alternative fulfillment options are now the norm for retailers, but AT&T has gone above and beyond by letting shoppers choose when and how they receive help setting up their devices, whether at home or completely remotely.

Limited Store Openings Provide a Lesson in Traffic Management

At the height of the pandemic, AT&T only had 30% of its stores open. The retailer had to carefully consider which stores needed to remain open by considering multiple factors. State and local ordinances meant AT&T had to allow for safe, proper operation; shoppers needed access to relatively convenient locations; and the stores themselves had to match customer preferences, such as whether it was located in a strip mall or in a stand-alone building.

“What we really looked at was where our customers are, the traveling distance and also the size of the store,” said Incarnato. “That really matters, because if we’re only going to have one store open in a particular county or area where we have a larger base of customers, we needed to make sure that the store was big enough to accommodate a few customers at a time and that we had good access and parking.”

AT&T quickly adapted to these operating challenges, and the same lessons learned will apply during the holidays. For instance, the retailer fulfilled 25% to 30% of orders through contactless curbside pickup, and the infrastructure put in place to accomplish this will remain valuable through the holidays.

Dedicated Experience Coordinators Keep Everyone Safe

Not every shopper wants curbside pickup, and AT&T also has put tools in place to make the in-store shopping experience as safe as possible. Plexiglass at every table lets shoppers who need 1-to-1 attention help feel safe, and scannable QR codes both on AT&T’s website and at the doors of each store make it easy for customers to preview what they should expect, speed up transaction times and even enable an entirely contactless trip.

These precautions were enhanced through the addition of experience coordinators, who work with store managers to manage customer flow. These employees are tasked with monitoring the situation, setting expectations for shoppers and, perhaps most importantly, making sure everyone feels comfortable during their journey.

“The experience coordinator really triages and sets expectations about the wait time, manages the number of customers in the store and also the flow of our customers and our employees,” said Incarnato. “Shopping off the wall was something that customers used to have the luxury of doing pre-COVID — there’s a lot of play within the store, a lot of technology to look at. But that’s often not an option anymore, depending on the number of customers we have in-store, and the experience coordinators have been critical there.”

Flexibility Ensures Satisfaction Beyond the Shopping Experience

AT&T does more than sell products — smartphone repairs and assistance, normally a standard part of operations, suddenly become much more complicated during a pandemic. The retailer rose to the occasion through its free Right To You service, which not only lets shoppers choose where and when they want to receive their phone but lets them choose how they receive help setting it up.

“We now offer three different setup options for customers to choose from, based on what best fits their preferences,” said Incarnato. “There’s indoor setup, which is our traditional setup; outdoor setup, weather permitting; and then remote setup where we will connect with the customers over the phone, talk them through a lot of the steps and also provide them with setup videos. It’s been a really nice enhancement. We want to make sure that the customer feels as comfortable with the service as they possibly can.”

The retailer’s operations during the early days of the pandemic and through the iPhone 12 launch have left Incarnato confident that AT&T is well-positioned to weather this unique holiday season — particularly thanks to the efforts of the company’s associates.

“We have what we call frontline heroes, and they really made it happen,” said Incarnato. “Their hard work and dedication made our response possible. Even when we had 30% of our stores open we had technicians in the field and they just kept working, and because of these people we saw countless examples of making customer connections. Just for an example here in New England, I can’t tell you how many stories I could share from my team, day after day, about grandparents that they helped set up with their first smartphone so they can stay connected to their children and grandchildren.”

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