O’Connell and Goldberg

It’s unclear how consumers will shop in a post-COVID-19 world — so how can retailers prepare for the unknown? For Matt Levinson, chief operating officer at O’Connell and Goldberg, a Florida-based public relations firm that specializes in retail, “Reopening is not a one size fits all, flip the switch initiative.”

That’s why reopening strategies should be tailored, and evaluated on an individual basis — but some ubiquity remains. Here, Levinson discusses potential trends and methods for retailers to consider when reopening after closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

WWD: What are some of the methods retailers can employ to safely and strategically prepare for reopening? How are retailers addressing consumers’ concerns for health and safety during their shopping experience?

Matt Levinson: It’s important to understand that reopening is not a one size fits all, flip the switch initiative. In fact, it’s not even city by city. It will be individual store by individual store and the lessons from one opening will be iterative to the next.

Now more than ever, shopping centers and individual retailers must strictly adhere to their reopening policies, while also being flexible enough to evolve and change as they discover what works and what doesn’t. In addition to following CDC guidelines and state/city mandates regarding social distancing, facial coverings and capacity limits, retailers are opening with shorter hours, contactless service/payment and curbside pickup.

Often, dressing rooms are closed and returned merchandise must be sanitized before returned to the sales floor. In all of these cases, continuous staff training and communication is essential. If they don’t feel comfortable, the customers won’t.

We know there is considerable pent-up demand for a return to some version of normalcy, whether that’s visiting a favorite local boutique, strolling through a shopping center or dining out with family and close friends. It’s imperative those initial consumer experiences are positive ones. Guests must feel safe and confident to return. With that, we will gradually see a “new normal” in the retail world driven by data and consumer sentiment.

Matt Levinson

Matt Levinson, chief operating officer at O’Connell and Goldberg. Photo courtesy of O’Connell and Goldberg.  DOMINO ARTS PHOTOGRAPHY

WWD: Would you outline the major trends and/or changes that have taken place during the coronavirus pandemic for brands and retailers? How will businesses alter/evolve their operations? 

M.L.: Retailers evolved through the pandemic in three primary phases: reduction, relevance and, now, recovery. Reduction focused on immediately protecting cash flow and leveraging contactless/online sales channels. The goal was to find cracks in which revenue could flow no matter how narrow. Relevance forced retail brands to find their voice and “role” in the crisis, gaining consumer mind share in lieu of market share. Recovery is finding new ways to serve customer and respond to their needs using new technology, delivery channels and loyalty.

The adoption of digital commerce accelerated five years in the past three months and will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on retail. That doesn’t mean the demise of brick-and-mortar. Some have enjoyed the ease of shopping online, but many more have missed human interaction and shared experiences, especially younger generations. We’re seeing that already with long lines outside retailers, [over]crowded beaches and parks, and booked restaurant reservations. Moving forward, retailers must maximize consumer demand using multichannel retailing, combining online/social with in-store digital experiences.

WWD: Are there unique or unusual approaches to connecting with consumers that have emerged during the COVID-19 quarantine? What have retailers done differently and what can we expect to see next in retail? What does the future hold? 

M.L.: Retailers certainly took novel approaches to digitally connecting — from online fashion shows to Zoom-assisted concierge to Facebook and IG Live demos. It’s likely many of these attempts will be forgotten in the new normal, but only time will tell. Retailers that seamlessly combine online experiences with brick and mortar will thrive, including Apple, Warby Parker, Peloton and Nordstrom.

Two consumer shifts that will certainly endure:

“Buy local”: There’s growing negative sentiment that the pandemic propelled the big to get even bigger (Amazon, Walmart, etc.). There will likely be a converse push to support Main Street and “mom-and-pop” retailers. Shoppers across the country feel a sense of community and don’t want to see their neighborhood stores go out of business, especially after the pandemic.

“We see you”: Social media has made our world smaller and it is on display 24/7. Consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, often believe retail brands should align with their global views, whether that’s supporting social movements, sourcing products transparently and sustainably, and providing fair wages for employees.

For more Business news from WWD, see:

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Brick-and-Mortar, Digital Retailers Adjust Strategies in Wake of Coronavirus

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