Rob Garf

The post-pandemic retail experience is shaping up to be more dynamic and engaging for consumers while also blending the efficiencies, flexibility and personalization of online shopping with the sense of discovery offered by a physical store.

During the recent Fairchild Media Group Tech Forum, Rob Garf, vice president and general manager, retail at Salesforce, discussed this trend with Adrianna Lee, technology reporter at WWD. The session, titled, “The New Retail Work Environment,” also covered consumer preferences born out of the pandemic that will likely remain permanent fixtures in the shopping experience, as well as how merchants responded after the COVID-19 outbreak forced them to temporarily shutter stores.

“Practically overnight, non-essential retailers shut doors and everything turned digital really quickly,” Garf said. “From a consumer perspective, over the course of 2020 we saw a 57 percent increase in [online shopping] and that was driven by net new digital shoppers. We also saw a 40 percent increase in digital shoppers around the world, but that didn’t mean the store became irrelevant.”

Garf said merchants with physical stores have to reinvent the store and also “reimagine the role of the store associate.” That meant going from a “scan and bag” role to becoming pick and pack fulfillment experts as the demand for curbside pick-up and buy online, pick up in-store soared.

“They also became social media managers as they were asked to reach out to their social networks to represent their [company’s] brand,” he said. “They also became virtual service agents and stylists, and brand ambassadors while replicating the in-store vibe.”

When asked about changes at the store- and district- manager level, Garf said the pandemic upended traditional management functions, but said retailers are looking at ways to continue collaborating with various technologies. “A lot of their responsibility is spent in cars and going to each individual store, and I think that’s not going to end,” he said. “You still need to walk the aisle — especially what’s happening on the ground with associates and consumers. There’s no better way to really take the temperature of what’s happening in retail than spending time in the store.”

In regard to using technology to connect and collaborate, Garf said he thinks a “lot can be accomplished in an asynchronous and virtual way. We’re seeing a lot of retailers talk about the next generation of collaboration and communication. And you will see this at the store, district and regional manager level, but also among store associates as well. There’s an opportunity to create a community within the associate base that doesn’t need to be constrained by where they physically are located.”

For consumers, Garf said the shift toward embracing online shopping is not going away. And as more people get vaccinated and return to stores, he sees shoppers prioritizing and valuing health, safety, convenience and trust. And knowledgeable sales associates who can offer personalized shopping experiences, in-store or virtually, are “not going to go away,” Garf added.

“Consumers also want to come back and live life again, and a big part of that is experiencing the store and the physical nature of it that can’t be replicated in the digital world,” Garf said, adding that showrooming will likely become more prevalent in the market along with less inventory in stores.

“Retailers have tools to allow them to see where the inventory sits across the entire network and are able to have the fulfillment efficiency to get it within a day or two,” Garf said, also noting that the showroom model is not a “one size fits all” approach. Some retailers and brands, for example, will be better offer with pop-up stores.

Either way, Garf said retailers need to “think about the idea of pushing your brand toward where the consumers are. And in many cases that’s outside the real fixed property of the retailer. Why not go to where the consumers are — especially as they’re getting back to travel, dining and entertainment?”