Retailers and shoppers are heading into largely uncharted territory as states start to reopen in the midst of a pandemic, but the in-store experience isn’t the same for the foreseeable future — if not forever.
The main concern on the minds of retailers and industry advisers is making people feel comfortable shopping in stores again, in whatever way they can.
“For many people, this will be the first time they’ve been in a relatively crowded space for a month or more,” said Chris Hogue, vice president of strategy and products at commerce agency LiveArea, which advises a number of major retailers. “Retailers that can manage to get people in the store, find what they need and leave will be more successful.”
But the time in which a shopper spends inside a store is poised to look a lot different than just a few months ago. States across the U.S. are starting to reopen their economies after weeks of shutdown enforced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, for which there is still no treatment or vaccine. Some states and counties have more lax guidelines for how people and businesses should go about protecting themselves from contracting COVID-19 in public and spreading it to others, but most retailers are taking every reasonable precaution.
YOU WON’T TOUCH ANYTHING
One of the first investments most retailers will be making is in the transition to completely touchless transaction tools, like tap-and-go payment and more modern credit card processing machines that actually read chips that come in all credit cards now. No more pressing buttons on screens or handing a card to a store associate.
“At the tactical level, we’re looking at a lot of things but one of them is no-touch check-out,” Allison Samek, chief executive officer of Fred Segal said.
But shopping on the whole is also expected to be largely touchless as the months go by, especially if cases of the coronavirus pick up again as more people go into public. If you do browse inside of a store, clothing could be hanging in a plastic covering. If you try on jeans or a sweater, the items will be immediately steamed when you’re done or otherwise disinfected (although more upmarket stores will likely not go for spraying garments with quick drying disinfectant). As for beauty, in-store samples being on display for anyone to use is over, at least for the foreseeable future, according to Chris Hogue, vice president of strategy and products at commerce agency LiveArea.
“Beauty will be hugely impacted,” he said. “Walking into a store, picking up a product, trying it or swatching it on your arm, we’re moving away from all that.”
As for things you do try on or touch in a store, Hogue said a lot of retailers are likely to begin moving to a single-try in-store option. When you purchase something, an untouched garment or product will be shipped directly to you. The days of picking a sweater out of a stack or moisturizer from a row and walking out with it are likely over.
LINES WILL BE EVERYWHERE, BUT SO WILL APPOINTMENTS
The lines people have already gotten used to waiting in to shop for groceries as the pandemic has forced essential retailers to limit the number of people coming into stores are expected to continue for all other kinds of retail in states that are taking a cautious approach to reopening, like New York and California.
Hogue said he’s already talking with retail clients about how to make limited capacity in stores work better for customers. He said retailers will be operating at only 30 to 40 percent capacity, in order to ensure physical distancing, but already he’s having conversations with retailers about “clienteling apps” and easy ways to let shoppers make appointments to avoid long waits.
There is also talk about new or updated membership or loyalty programs that will give some perks to shoppers who participate, maybe even passing a line without an appointment, like airlines do with frequent flyers. Whether or not most people are willing to stand in any kind of a line to shop for nonessential items, like a new pair of jeans or shade of lipstick, remains to be seen. Retailers will probably need to do some extra work to make sure the shopping experience starts early and goes quickly.
“People will stand in line if they can browse online and chat with an associate about what they need and they’re given accurate wait times, things like that,” Hogue said. “If you just show up and there’s a long line, much less of a chance people will stand in it.”
STORE ASSOCIATES WILL BE IN FULL-ON PPE
Masks and gloves are certain to be worn by store associates everywhere. Maybe even aprons and face shields, depending on the type of retailer or a worker’s comfort level. The average retail staffer may look more like a surgeon for the next several months as businesses make a concentrated effort to not only reassure shoppers that a store is taking precautions while opening its doors during a pandemic, but to make retail workers feel safe as they begin to interact with the public.
Samek of Fred Segal said she’s looking at stores opening with employees and customers social distancing at all times and wearing protective gear. Hogue said employees will be an immediate sign of a retailer’s protective efforts around the coronavirus and “a great source of comfort” for shoppers.
Overall, retail employees will be dressed in PPE at work to some extent, but masks are expected to be mandatory nearly everywhere, at least for employees. Hogue said he expects the rules to differ for customers by state, noting that some smaller retailers may feel uneasy about enforcing restrictions on shoppers, seeing it as a risk to losing business. Some may do temperature checks, but with so many cases of the virus not involving a fever at first, if ever, that may prove less popular.
“Businesses will go with state guidelines for customers,” Hogue said. “Some will suggest that you wear a mask, but a lot of mom-and-pops in some states, they won’t make it mandatory.”
Things like gloves and aprons may be more temporary for workers, but the mask is likely to be around for a while. It may even become a more regular part of daily life for people in general, as it already is in regions of East Asia, like Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China.
“Habits are going to change,” Rick Caruso, founder and ceo of Caruso property group, said. “They just have to. This was too profound an event for it not to change.”
CLEANING, FRONT AND CENTER
Something that used to happen only after a store closed or before it opened, cleaning will now be on full display in stores, malls and shopping centers.
Caruso said his mall properties will have an increased cleaning crew going around all day long, among shoppers, to ensure that surfaces are disinfected and consumers feel comfortable. He’s even hired an infectious disease expert to train and inform Caruso cleaning staff on how to appropriately disinfect for viruses.
“We have a massive undertaking going on,” he said of the increased cleaning protocols at his properties. “It will completely change the way we do everything.”
He admitted that cleaning was something “we used to hide,” but now he wants shoppers to see it. There will also be a lot of signage throughout his properties to let customers know all the precautions being taken amid the pandemic.
“We’re going to let people know…they’ll see a lot of cleaning going on,” Caruso said.
Other retailers will be doing similar things, Hogue said.
“The number-one strategy should be communication — why you’re taking the steps you are and how they make customers safe; contingency plans for if someone is infected, what you will do,” Hogue said.
FEWER STORES THAN EVER
Brick-and-mortar retail was experiencing something of a resurgence over the last year or two, as former digital-only brands like Allbirds, Everlane and Glossier, among others, began to invest in the space as the surest way to widely expand their customer bases and generate revenues. “Experiential” was also giving a lot of brands and retailers more of a foothold with a younger shopper.
Now, as measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus forced essentially all retail to close, with millions of retail workers across the country either laid off permanently or furloughed, a lot of stores that closed due to the pandemic are not expected to reopen. And even those that do reopen will be doing so to a new reality of presumably depressed sales given physical distancing mandates and an expected recession.
“When you have to limit the number of people coming in, I don’t see a lot of stores surviving,” Hogue said. But he did have something of a silver lining, in that some retailers may shift more of their current retail footprint into expanded distribution for a continued increase in online shopping, instead of simply retreating from leased spaces.
“Some more forward-thinking retailers are looking at changing their footprint, asking how can I leverage my back office as a tactical distribution center that allows me to make shipping and logistics more efficient,” Hogue added.
Caruso also expects the overall look of shopping centers to change, with a lot of retailers, like the several that have already declared bankruptcy amid the coronavirus, closing stores. And other retailers will simply realign themselves to a new style of shopping, one with even fewer customers in store than there was before the coronavirus.
“There will be fewer stores, but also the ones that stay, they’ll be smaller but more relevant,” Caruso said. “Stores in general will need to be more curated.”
Still, as the owner of some major outdoor malls and shopping centers, Caruso is not sounding the death knell of physical retail. He thinks it is here to stay, even with a pandemic forcing closures, new, costly cleaning protocols and workers in hospital gear. Not to mention more people than ever forced online to do all of their shopping.
“People will still want to engage with service inside brick-and-mortar, it will still be a healthy format for sales,” Caruso said. “Online and brick-and-mortar go hand-in-hand. You have to be good at both.”