In-Store Experience Was Supposed to Save Brick-and-Mortar Retail — What Happens Now?

The coronavirus may have killed one of retail’s buzziest trends.

Pre-COVID-19, “experiential retail” had been on the rise, as retailers looked to drive foot traffic and cut through the digital noise with everything from speakers’ series and networking mixers to trunk shows and in-store cafes. But as stores begin to reopen, activations like in-store events and high-touch services are off the table for the foreseeable future.

“At least in the short term, the retail experience will be very different with all of the protective measures that need to be in place. So we are going to have to rethink what ‘experiential means,'” said Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at NPD Group. “No cocktail parties or trunk shows for a while and those that have made major investments in restaurants and services will be hurt by this.”

As retailers start to bring back their fleets, they are implementing a number of safety measures — including eliminating high-touch services. For instance, Nordstrom is temporarily closing dine-in eating options, and is suspending in-person styling services as well as alterations, brow shaping and bra fittings. The retailer’s 320,000 square-foot New York City flagship, which remains temporarily shut due to the coronavirus, features seven restaurant options, including its “Shoe Bar.” Meanwhile, Macy’s has suspended its “spalike” services, ear piercing, alterations and bra fittings, in addition to implementing “no touch” beauty consultations. The department store chain dipped its toes into the experiential space last year with the debut of Story, its 1,500 square-foot shop-in-shop that features a curated assortment of product.

As digital trends surged around 2015, in-person interaction between associates and shoppers had been thought of as an essential part of the experiential retail model that had been touted as a means to save struggling traditional chains.

“Your store staff, especially in a pop-up, they are your most important touch points,” Melissa Gonzalez, founder of The Lion’esque Group, told FN last year. “They are the front line. You can have the most creative concept and the most beautifully designed store and the best merchandised shelves, and then somebody goes to talk to your store staff, and then what happens? You don’t want that experience to be cut short.”

Mandatory personal protective equipment and plexiglass at registers make these face-to-face interactions more difficult. Further, some stores, such as Nordstrom and Kohl’s, have announced that they operating with fewer staff on the floor for now because of social distancing guidelines.

At the same time, brands and retailers have found ways to creatively engage with their consumers digitally. For instance, singer turned fashion designer Rihanna has begun to host “Fenty Social Club,” a series of virtual parties that stream via Instagram Live. Puma is holding Instagram Live yoga classes in partnership with ambassador Cara Delevingne. And several labels, including Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs and GCDS, have generated buzz by joining the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

“Shopping events like VIP early access to sales could work well online with associates streaming product from stores. We’ve seen that home/TV shopping has given some categories a boost during this time so retailers may want to look to that as a format to emulate as part of their omnichannel strategies,” Goldstein suggested.

However, Goldstein warned that “fatigue will be an issue, so retailers will have to be selective.”

Nevertheless, even in the coronavirus era, certain kinds of in-person experiential events may still be possible, just with fewer people and special restrictions.

“You could still have an event in store [but it would have to be] almost policed,” explained Jessica Ramirez, retail research analyst at Jane Hali & Associates.

And retailers in the luxury space might be better positioned to tap into this possibility, Ramirez explained.

“When you look at luxury, it is sort of a natural step for them to do [events and shopping] by appointment. And you can have an event that way, too, if you want to,” she added, noting that high-cost designer items lend themselves to one-on-one appointment-driven shopping experiences.

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