If Retailers Want Consumers to Mask Up and Shop Inside Stores in a Pandemic, This Is What They Need to Do

It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted the retail landscape — but the jury is still out on the extent to which the disruption is for better or for worse.

This is particularly true for brick-and-mortar stores.

For one, the accelerated shift to digital is akin to lighting a fire under stagnant traditional retailers that have been late to expanding and evolving their businesses. That’s not altogether a bad thing — perhaps it’s one of the few positives. On the other hand, the global health crisis has tipped many teetering firms off the edge, leading to rampant bankruptcies, liquidations and layoffs.

In a panel today, part of the Sourcing Journal Virtual Summit, retail experts reinforced the notion of a bifurcated retail environment — particularly for stores — borne of the pandemic. As Chris Lydle, global lead of local shopping at Google, pointed out: The expected omnichannel juggernauts like Apple and Nike are winning online and offline. At the same time, firms like Dollar General that compete on price and product availability — and not fancy store experiences — are also reaping dividends as people flock to brick-and-mortar for essentials.

“One of the things the pandemic has demonstrated is that e-commerce has grown and will continue to grow, but we’re seeing strains on the e-commerce fulfillment networks,” Lydle added. “I’ve heard a lot of rumblings of shortening of the retail holiday season [because of this] and there needing to be a cut-off point [for online orders]… [that’s when] I think consumers will recognize that local stores can compete in a lot of ways — not the least of which is in availability and being able to get things sooner.”

Barrie Scardina, head of retail, Americas, at Cushman & Wakefield, described the role of stores in the current environment — and beyond — as falling into two distinct “lanes.”

“One is as a center of fulfillment — whether that’s e-commerce orders, buy online, pick up in store orders, curbside pickup — really it’s to make that inventory productive,” she explained. “The other [lane has to do with] having a [place] for people to connect with the brand.”

When it comes to the latter, Scardina noted that retailers may need to focus on training associates that are in consumer-facing roles to have deep product knowledge and expertise — similar to traditional salesperson roles that were common in retail’s heyday of decades past.

What’s more, with heightened national attention being given to issues such as racial equality and sustainability, Scardina noted that brands that play up their corporate social responsibility (in stores and online), such as Everlane and Allbirds, have greater odds for success.

As retailers prepare for a holiday season unlike any other, Tom Enright, VP of research at Gartner, said he expects several pandemic-induced trends to force an earlier start to the period among other changes.

“We’re going to see more fragmentation of shoppers,” he said. “About two-thirds of consumers who shopped with a new retailer or a brand during the pandemic say they may continue to do so going forward — so that means maybe the same amount of [overall holiday] spend as last year [but] spread across more retailers.”

Such fragmentation, noted Enright, can put a strain on shipping services and — coupled with consumers’ overarching safety concerns and propensity to avoid large crowds this year — could lead to people placing their holiday orders a month to six weeks earlier than normal.

At the same time, said Enright, consumers have also been markedly more intentional about their purchases amid the COVID-19 crisis — ditching habits like ordering multiple sizes of a product to try on and return.

Several experts have already pointed to the trend of greater conversion rates in stores since the pandemic took hold, i.e. if consumers take the time and effort to visit a store right now, they are likely set on making at least one purchase. Or, as Scardina explained, they need a truly worthwhile experience in order to layer on the PPE and visit a physical space.

“There needs to be much more engagement for us to put on our masks and come to the store,” she said.

The panel, hosted by Jessica Binns, managing editor and technology editor at Sourcing Journal, is part of the publication’s two-day virtual summit, held Oct. 14 and 15.

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