The focus of retail for most of 2020 was on the growth of e-commerce and omnichannel capabilities, but new data suggests that brick-and-mortar will make a comeback in 2021. In a survey of almost 1,000 consumers, design collaborative company Bergmeyer found that consumers are expecting to return to stores – but they have a few key changes they want to see in order to shop in person again.
“There is no question that there have been monumental changes when it comes to shopping behavior,” read the Bergmeyer report. “For example, the massive shift to online shopping and buying (due to stores being closed) is significant and real. But the question is whether it’s permanent? Or will we return to pre-COVID behaviors, having the confidence to re-emerge and return to our favorite stores with the same enthusiasm we previously had?”
Prior to the pandemic, e-commerce had been growing, with 20% of respondents shopping only online. But the majority still either shopped both in-store and online (40%), or exclusively in-store (30%). For apparel retailers, brick-and-mortar is particularly important; it was the second most popular in-store category (30%), after groceries (50%). This is likely tied to the biggest drivers of brick-and-mortar: touch and feel, and immediate fulfillment.
For the majority of the year, store closures, changing priorities and shifting financial situations have changed the way consumers approached retail. The health risks associated with communal spaces have resulted in a majority of respondents being either somewhat (35%) or strongly (20%) apprehensive about returning to in-store shopping.
Brick-and-mortar has a few key challenges. Even prior to the pandemic, crowds (40%) were the biggest negative of in-store shopping; after the pandemic, that has increased and now 60% of respondents are mostly apprehensive of store crowds. Lack of inventory range was the second biggest concern pre-pandemic (15%), while cleanliness (25%) and store size (10%) have now become reason for apprehension.
But despite these concerns, physical stores are still of interest to consumers: Less than half of respondents (42%) said they saw their in-store shopping habits changing. In order for retailers to help assuage these concerns, Bergmeyer recommends that they focus on three key areas: crowd size, communications and store cleaning protocols.
“This is powerful feedback that states, ‘show us you care; do what you can to make us feel safe,’” said the report. “Communicate with your customers about how you’re prioritizing their safety, either graphically or through associate interaction.”
Critically, these areas are all minimal in cost to implement and don’t require too much operational manpower, according to Bergmeyer. They are also immediately available to retailers, which is useful for retailers looking to make the most of Q1. Particularly in regard to shoppers who don’t think that things will return to normal until there is mass vaccine adoption (40%), retailers need to get ahead on making their customers feel comfortable.
Even as government-enforced restrictions are relaxed, Bergmeyer suggests that retailers maintain policies that reduce crowds and improve sanitation. Even as retailers explore new stores and locations, designs that consider cleanliness and that are easily adaptable will be useful, to prepare for whatever may come in the future.
“Our survey revealed that the consumer is willing to get back out there, given time and appropriately adapted conditions,” said the Bergmeyer report. “The numbers point to an underlying desire to return to normalcy, albeit with caution and a critical appraising eye on the businesses they patronize; customer and retailer, a symbiotic relationship.”