With shelter-in-place orders cautiously lifted and shoppers eager to leave their homes again, the retail world has an opportunity to begin healing the massive damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retailers must understand that reopening does not necessarily signal a return to previous norms, though.
The New York Times recently explored the possibilities for a post-pandemic retail reopening. Across the globe, retailers big and small are going above and beyond to reassure customers that their stores are as safe as can be. From employee training to increased cleaning routines and visible protective gear, retailers recognize that the shoppers of 2020 need things that no previous generation expected.
For brick-and-mortar retailers, the reopening period marks the end of a brutal stretch of uncertainty. While consumers remain hesitant and regulations are still in place, at least now retailers can start making efforts to bring their customers back. The helplessness of shutdowns was one of the darkest periods for retail businesses in living memory.
Now, businesses have a long road ahead of them – but they have everything they need to make the journey possible.
One of our recent reports, The Great Reopening of Retail: Insights From 400+ Brick and Mortar Retailers, found that over 85% of retailers believe that generating unique experiences will be integral to their success in reopening. If you own or manage a retail business, keep these tips in mind as you prepare to reopen to the public.
1. Visibly prioritize the health of both employees and visitors.
People have missed shopping, but they won’t take their business just anywhere. They still want to stay safe, which means consumers in the first phase of reopening will consistently prefer to shop at businesses that take safety seriously.
The CDC created a set of guidelines in March to help retailers begin to reopen. These guidelines included facts about coronavirus transmission as well as instructions for cleaning and disinfecting.
But it will be important to implement safety protocols beyond basic recommendations from health authorities. The people most concerned about a second wave of infections do not want the bare minimum. They want to shop in stores that treat their safety as the top priority, and they will not hesitate to turn around and walk out the door if they feel their health is in danger.
Employees deal with the same problems, but they face them in different ways. Empower your employees by providing them the cleaning and protective equipment they need. Back them up if customers get testy about safety requirements. You may lose one irate customer, but you will gain the respect of your staff – and if the news travels, health-conscious consumers will appreciate how seriously your company takes their safety.
2. Improve communications and limit touches using digital signage.
The coronavirus shined a light on a common issue with the traditional shopping experience. People touch lots of things when they go out: things they do or don’t buy, the counters, the doors, the railings, menus, shelves, and just about everything else. This means employees need easily accessible and referenced information on cleaning procedures, store safety policies, and personal protection guidelines. Customers also want to know about all the efforts businesses make to ensure their safety.
Options like contactless payments will be critical, but stores need to do more. For example, electronic doors and foot levers to bathrooms and entryways may make hesitant shoppers more comfortable about entering, and you could use digital signage to replace menus and other paper items.
These precautions don’t count if you keep them secret. Make your safety efforts obvious to anyone entering the building. Use signage to provide up-to-date information on your policies and procedures. With digital signage, you can put up employee guidelines in the morning, switch to customer information during the day, then post wrap-up policies for closing, all without requiring anyone to change physical signs.
Many stores will continue to use one-way lanes for several months. If you have chosen that path, use digital signs not only to guide visitors around the store but also to educate them on where they might find products and deals. Every educational or informative opportunity is also an opportunity to deepen customer engagement and drive interest in your products.
3. Lean harder into long-term changes.
During the pandemic, retailers scrambled to find ways to provide curbside service, no-contact pickup and delivery. As regulations soften and crowds begin to return, do not abandon all that effort you spent developing new systems. Instead, lean harder into those opportunities to differentiate your brand from the rest.
While many stores pull resources away from pandemic-inspired service adjustments, consider investing more resources into those same processes and making them permanent. No one can say how long the masses will remain reluctant to embrace close contact, not to mention how health experts will feel. Your employees may also appreciate continued physical distancing.
Even without health considerations, the world was moving toward more self-service options and higher expectations of convenience before the pandemic struck. Now, you have a golden opportunity to develop your low-contact and self-service infrastructure with an audience eager to help you figure out the best system. In a few years, the conveniences of necessity born of COVID-19 may become the baseline expectation for retail shoppers.
Now, and especially in the long term, people will go to physical stores for reasons outside of just touching products. Many now view a trip to the store as a social outing or a form of entertainment, not just a quick trip to grab the items they need. From grocery stores to secondhand record shops, the atmosphere and engagements with staff matter as much as or more than the products on the shelves.
In the wake of the pandemic, many stores will struggle to provide any experience at all, much less a differentiated one that encourages repeat visitors and makes customers feel comfortable and welcome. With so much on the line, stores should look to digital signage as a way to bridge the gap.
4. Know your audience.
Similar to any tool, digital signage performs best in the hands of those who can make the most of its potential. Operators who have not yet experimented with digital signage should ask a few basic questions:
- Who are the people shopping in the store?
- What are their needs, which products appeal to them, and what role does digital signage play in that relationship?
- How can you engage them? What variables of messaging can you A/B test to see what leads to the most sales?
It will be important to revisit these questions as you roll out reopening measures, analyzing the techniques that work best to create more digital messaging that deepens engagement. For example, if your customers spend a lot of time using augmented reality features, perhaps you could add more signs with AR capabilities and develop deeper AR content.
Above all, stay flexible. The pandemic itself is far from over, and retailers will deal with more regulatory changes and evolutions in customer sentiment throughout this year and next. Continue to communicate with your customers about their expectations, collect feedback on your processes, and stay at the front of the pack on safety so that customers who choose to venture outside choose your business first.