The brick-and-mortar store. Despite the recently accelerated digitization of the industry, it remains the centre of the retail universe. Continuing to serve as a hub for brands, the physical retail space is increasingly representing the strongest point of customer engagement and excitement, acting as the purveyor of real-life experiences that cannot be replicated online or anywhere else. For these reasons, as we approach what looks at least something like a post-pandemic world, and the Canadian consumer returns, seeking out tangible encounters with their favourite brands, it seems that the importance of the store will be more critical than ever before. As a result, many industry experts and observers suggest that anything retailers can do to ensure the comfort, health and safety of their guests in the physical retail environment will be essential going forward, and a necessary lever for future growth and success.
“There’s no doubting the fact that the physical retail space is a vitally strategic component of every retail plan for businesses looking to grow,” says retail and real estate industries expert, Claude Sirois. “The pandemic has brought online and offline retail even closer together than at any previous point. The emergence and adoption of alternate modes of purchase, like ‘buy online pickup in-store’ and curbside pickup have allowed many physical spaces to continue operating and serving a purpose through the pandemic, acting more as a hub of fulfillment at times. But, as we hopefully start to fully reopen the economy and invite visitors back to the retail store, the experiences that it offers and human connections that it facilitates will be a key part of the retail mix. And, just as influential will be retailers’ ability to create a safe and welcoming space, restoring confidence in the consumer.”
An evolving retail experience
The response from most retailers throughout the industry and across the country was swift and thoughtful and has been applauded by many. Even prior to government action and mandatory lockdowns were announced, merchants everywhere introduced protocols, implemented safety measures and followed direction from health experts in order to immediately provide as comfortable and safe a setting as was possible at the time. Results, for the most part, were very positive, with safeguards and measures producing footfall – while it’s been permitted – and much-needed in-store sales during a time that’s necessitated the provision of as many avenues toward purchase as can reasonably be enabled. In fact, the outcomes of these initiatives have been so impactful on the shopping experience that Doug Stephens, astute industry analyst and Founder of the consultancy firm Retail Prophet, proposes retailers consider maintaining them as part of an evolving retail experience.
“First, through the pandemic many retailers, out of necessity, brought design and navigation principles to their physical stores that resulted in better shopper flow, fewer bottle-necks, and ultimately a more orderly shopping experience,” he asserts. “Already, however, we’re beginning to see some retailers reverting back to pre-pandemic setups. I think this is a huge mistake for a couple reasons. First, the hangover of germaphobia created by Covid-19 could endure well beyond the point when we emerge from this. And secondly, many of the adaptations actually made for a better and more pleasant shopping experience for the consumer.”
Rethinking physical retail
Some of the design and navigation principles that Stephens refers to include exclusive entrances and exits where possible, one-way in-store foot traffic that’s indicated by directional floor decals and signage, the cordoning off of in-store thoroughfares or, in some cases partial reimagining of certain spaces to create organization, and a restructuring of cash queues that optimize space while ensuring social distancing between guests. In an effort to create a safer environment for shoppers, there are others within the industry that are going as far as exploring the use of germ-free shelving and alternate construction materials, the removal of all handles and doorknobs from doors, a revamping of fitting rooms and the elimination of impulse displays. Beyond physical alterations made to the store to improve safety and flow concerns, however, Stephens says that considerations concerning the use of the physical retail space will be just as decisive going forward.
“With respect to longer term design implications, I think retailers now have a better appreciation of the many roles stores can and should play in the future,” he states. “We’ve seen retailers using their stores as mini distribution hubs for pick-ups and returns, as service points for by-appointment-only shopping, as stages for live-streaming and as studios for content creation. Astute brands will continue to explore these and many other dimensions of value that physical stores can and should provide. And, those retailers that revert back to treating their stores purely as distribution channels for products will be making a grave strategic error. Stores, if designed and operated properly can become a Swiss Army knife of utility and value for retailers, fulfilling many valuable roles.”
It’s a bold statement of the future application and purpose of the physical retail store. And, according to current consumer sentiment highlighted within recent Forrester research, it may just be an accurate one. Forrester’s data indicates that an astounding 40 percent of US online shoppers enjoy visiting physical retail spaces less now than they did prior to the pandemic. Yet, the same number of shoppers say that they don’t go out of their way to avoid shopping in-store and have no intention to cease their in-person shopping behaviour. These insights are revealing and start to shed some light on opportunities available to retailers who can deliver the experience that the consumer is looking for. An experience, says Charles de Brabant, Executive Director – Bensadoun School of Retail Management, that’s rooted in frictionless principles and supported by innovative technologies.
“The shift in consumer behaviour that’s occurred throughout the pandemic, highlighted by a migration of purchases from the physical store environment to online, has been significant,” he points out. “It’s led to a truly omnichannel market in which consumers are leveraging a number of different channels in order to purchase the products and goods that they need. At the same time, retailers across the country have undergone a digital acceleration unlike anything the industry has ever seen. This convergence of consumer attitudes and behaviour and retailer innovation is set to revolutionize the physical brick-and-mortar experience as merchants really begin to reimagine what’s possible inside their stores. Advancements in technological innovations related to AI, robotics and big data are helping to drive a retail experience that’s more frictionless than ever, convenient and underpinned by enhanced service.”
Advancements in technology, of course, will reap a disparity of dividends for retailers based on the sector and vertical that they operate within. However, if a business has acquired a relatively deep understanding of their customer and the experiences they’re seeking, merchants will enable themselves to develop a much broader perception of the ways technologies can help enhance the experiences that they offer. Take the grocery sector as one of the best examples. Deemed an essential service during lockdowns, grocers across the country were tasked with developing ways by which consumers could still access their product while providing a level of safety in their stores. And, according to food and grocery expert and Senior Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, Sylvain Charlebois, most players within the sector continue to explore and introduce new ways to achieve this, reinventing the grocery shopping experience.
“The physical aspect of food distribution will remain quite relevant and important for a great number of consumers and for grocers as well,” he asserts. “Food is fundamentally about connecting. And so, I don’t think we’ll ever arrive at a day when everyone’s buying their groceries online. But that being said, the pandemic has forced grocers to think differently about store design, and the first constraint that comes to mind is the need to enable physical distancing within stores. They have to think about the width of their aisles, where certain product is located and how accessible it is to the consumer. They also need to consider the way consumers enter and exit the store. And you can see that they’re being very mindful of the checkout experience, introducing more self-service lanes.”
Charlebois recognizes that grocers have done a tremendous job to this point, implementing a number of measures and practices that have gone a long way toward alleviating consumer concerns and creating welcoming stores. However, he also admits that many have another distance to go yet before fully optimizing their space and introducing technological applications that can help create an enhanced grocery shopping experience, suggesting that their efforts are all part of a continuous evolution that they’ll need to navigate with thoughtfulness and care.
“As part of grocers’ cleanliness agenda related to the pandemic, many are currently exploring and discovering new ways to clean shopping carts and other surfaces that are touched frequently by consumers,” he says. “Having staff wipe carts constantly is not really a sustainable way to go about this, and may actually not be the most effective method of sanitization. There are portable shopping cart sanitization machines that are being developed and tested around the world that may offer a solution to this challenge. But, it’s this combination of technological application and a rethink of the grocery store design and layout that will be most important for grocers going forward in order to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for their consumers in the most efficient and effective way possible.”
Maintaining the essence of retail
When it comes to the use of different technologies and the exploration of alternate store design principles, it seems that there’s innumerable amounts of options and adaptive components at the disposal of retailers in order to create a safe atmosphere for their visitors. However, their efforts to do so have got to align with the experiences that they want to provide for their customers. It’s an area of consideration that Mark Ainley, contemporary feng shui consultant and expert on space and flow, says should be top-of-mind in order to maintain the essence of retail and what it means to consumers.
“We’ve seen retailers respond to safety concerns by setting up barriers for distance, inserting partitions at cash registers and introducing a number of other methods by which to meet safety regulations and to put people at ease,” he says. “But what’s going to be most interesting is the transition that we’re currently going through from a state of caution and a need to ensure safety back to an environment that we’re more familiar with. Most of the changes that were required have already been made. The biggest challenge now for retailers and other establishments is to restore confidence in the consumer and to help them feel that things are going back to normal, rather than feeling as though they’re constantly going through airport security. When people go shopping, they want it to be a joyful and engaging experience where they explore, touch and discover things that interest them. And it’s the barriers to that experience related to protocols and limitations that need to be minimized while still meeting safety requirements. So, how do you set up a barrier that’s not ugly plexiglass, but something attractive so that it doesn’t feel like a barrier anymore?”
Rebuilding retail’s foundation
As we continue, slowly and cautiously, toward a post-pandemic world and a full reopening of communities in cities across the country, it’s clear that the safety and comfort of employees and visitors within physical brick-and-mortar locations is a priority for Canadian retailers. The efforts that the industry has collectively made to this point, as well as those that are ongoing, have been impressive and speak to retailers’ need to nurture and sustain real-life human connections. After all, retail is about a lot of things, but without people, it’s nothing. And, according to Claude Sirois, the retailers that continue to keep the customer at the heart of everything they do will be those who will evolve and adapt, coming out of the pandemic in good stead.
“Brands really need to develop trust in the minds of their customers. And they’ve got to do that by ensuring the maintenance of a strong human emotional connection to their brand. We’re now obviously in an omnichannel world. However, there isn’t an emotional connection with brands online. The post-COVID environment is going to provide retailers with a big opportunity to re-establish that interaction and connection with the consumer. One way this is going to be achieved by some will be through collaborative efforts that will involve all stakeholders, including landlords, brands, employees and consumers. The brands that can bring this to the next level will be the ones that succeed and will help to rethink retail, paving the way toward rebuilding the foundations of a strong retail industry.”