Even as retail establishments begin to open back up, one of the first things on everyone’s mind is social distancing. Wearing a mask or not, everyone is painfully aware of precautions, both mandated and personal. Stores can open their doors, but the retail experience will never be the same.
Karsh Hagan has been keenly tracking the coming retail revolution long before the current COVID-19 crisis. The appearance of Pop-up Stores and Puzzle Rooms heralded a shift towards Experiential Marketing in the retail space. But since the pandemic began, we’ve seen retail evolve beyond Experiential into Education Marketing.
Touch-less door entry, for example, is one aspect of retail that was a “nice to have” and now is a customer expectation. When a customer enters a store and they see the word “anti-microbial” printed on the floor mats, it makes them feel safer, more comfortable, and makes them think the store cares about their well-being. Those stores will see more lift.
Shopping as a Tour
No retail space was designed with social distancing in mind. Some have enough room to accommodate the mandates by adding arrows to the floor, indicating to customers the singular direction they should walk. Grocery stores, for instance, have done this and sometimes customers comply. Many customers don’t comply because the arrows change the shopping metaphor of the store -- yet, the rest of the store isn’t set up to accommodate this new paradigm.
Most retail spaces, from Walgreens to Verizon, are set up to be a warehouse of displays - each display showing the 20 or so product varieties in a particular niche. The idea of shopping is that a customer navigates through the displays to find the product niche they want, selects the specific product that is best for them, takes one and checks out.
When grocery stores added arrows to the floor, all that changed. Now the customer must take a tour of the store, passing each display in turn. Customers find this frustrating because they can’t go directly to the thing they want. The only way to alleviate that frustration is to embrace shopping as a tour. No longer is the store considered to be a self-service warehouse. Instead stores should be designed as a guided tour through the products and the brand.
The new retail experience changes the relationship between the employee and the customer. Instead of being a salesperson, cashier or customer service agent, floor room employees become curators of the products and ambassadors of the brand voice.
When a store embraces the experience of shopping as a tour, an opportunity is created. As customers tour the store, employees can act as a guide, leading them along the path, educating them as they go, and helping them to identify the perfect product for their needs.
Also, stores will have less products in them. There isn’t enough space, and customers don’t want or need to see the inventory. Increasingly, stores will have only one display of each model. Instead of customers grabbing what they want, they’ll indicate what they want to an employee or mobile app, and the product magically shows up at checkout.
Since stores will contain less products, more emphasis will be placed on the customer-employee relationship. Employees will be expected to participate in the customer journey, and deliver expert knowledge of both the products and the brand.
With the shift towards Experiential Marketing, retail establishments had already started to become more like a museum than a warehouse. But often, the experiences designed for retail were a distraction from the shopping -- something fun to put the customer in a good mood.
With the New Retail, every part of the store becomes an experience, and those experiences combine to become the shopping experience. Every display must now serve three functions: shopping (display products for sale), experiential (engage the shopper), and education (communicate the company’s brand and purpose).
Now, every aspect of a store -- the way the front door opens, the path the customer takes, the product displays, the planned experiences, the digital touchpoints, the attitude of the employees, even the checkout process -- must be integrated and aligned with the company’s purpose. Every step should tell the brand story.
These changes are essential for quarantined times, but also, customer expectations are shifting to the point where stores that don’t keep up will eventually close their doors forever.