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6 Pandemic Side Effects on Retail’s Road to Recovery

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By: Bryan Pearson |

Posted on March 2, 2021

These resources are retail’s new black as we enter a year filled with light.

They have to be. The many forced changes that caused this unpredictability (curbside pickup, working from home) will become pervasive, if not permanent. And the ripple effects of all changes eventually reach the shores of retail: Foot traffic to stores — a key indicator of shopper behavior — declined by 13% to 16% in the final four months of 2020, year over year, and that marks a significant recovery from last spring.

Retailers, using their insight and innovation, are trying doggedly to follow this foot traffic. Here are six big areas to where it is leading them, and the opportunities each presents.

  • Clothing surplus. Plenty of retailers are still holding inventories from last year, and much of it might not have ever been seen. McKinsey estimates $168 billion to $192 billion in unsold clothing in stores and warehouses worldwide — more than double normal levels. As a result, retailers are shrinking their spring 2021 orders. Opportunity: Getting back into shopper wardrobes in 2021 takes understanding where they are on their journeys — from leisure wear to choosing clothes for work and fun. Shopper data from previous financial crises can help gauge the types of items purchased following economic uncertainty. Retailers that are holding off on spring orders for 2021 might be able to sub in some of their 2020 leftovers and form a “new normal” hybrid style. Instead of selling unseen styles at 50% off, they could promote them as “reclaim your year” styles, blended in with the bright, new 2021 lines.
  • New channel adoption won’t stop. Online spending accounted for 40% of all retail sales in the spring and holiday 2020, and it’s expected many of the adopters (including older shoppers) will want to continue the habit. All retailers have to eliminate barriers to online shopping, or fall to the back of the pack. Opportunity: Curbside pickup and online delivery are likely here to stay, and with better digital applications and coordination they should evolve to deliver more seamless and comprehensive experiences. This is an ideal time to test new omnichannel strategies by using shopper data to track online order pickup and delivery combinations and traffic. The insights developed by customer purchase patterns could guide retailers to support better experiences through shopping lists, reminders, recommendations and offers on new products consumers may find interesting. This customer understanding is especially relevant in frequency categories such as food, drug and wellness.
  • From currency neutral to cash-less. “Cash, credit or check” is sooo 2019. The percentage of U.S. retailers offering cashless options – thanks to the desire for touchless checkout – has risen multifold during the pandemic. Of those retailers using Square’s payment system alone, the share that were cashless rose to 31% by April 23, 2020, from nearly 8% on March 1, 2020. Opportunity: Assuming the experience is easy and error free, cash-free paying will come by default to shoppers. So thought should be applied to the actual moment of that touchless experience: What is the follow-up “thank you” message to the customer? Is a complementary product suggested, or a discount for the next purchase? The Starbucks SBUX -1.1% and Amazon Prime apps have helped standardized what should be the seamless shopping experience, offering multiple ways to order, pay and pickup. Others, including Walmart’s WMT +1.1% online ordering app, are ensuring it will evolve.
  • Bigger homes. A lot of people have purchased larger homes in the suburbs, or had their homes renovated and/or expanded, during the pandemic. Many of these post-pandemic homes are expected to have pools, extended porch areas, “flex” rooms (for home schooling or new-pet dens) and office space. Opportunity: Retailers can tee up “nesting” types of promotions for long-term engagement, couching them in comforting experiences. Customers may be gifted feel-good items, from hot chocolate to fleecy socks, for spending a certain amount on home furnishings. Membership programs can issue double points (or credit on a store app) during specified times, to increase purchases on slow days. American Express AXP +2.6% did something along these lines in the midst of the pandemic, giving $10 back (up to $50) to members who used their cards at small businesses.
  • Self-health management. Consumers were increasingly taking control of their own health care choices before the pandemic. Now, the trend for self-care has been has been elevated, to include even mask wearing (which will likely continue in some form). The pandemic also required many people, and in particularly the elderly, to adapt to telehealth options for physical and emotional well-being. Opportunity: Plenty of wellness retailers, such as Walgreens WBA -0.2%, have built membership platforms that issue reward points for healthy activities, such as exercise. Now those activities will extend to new categories, from wearing a mask (even post vaccine), to buying immunity-building products, to using apps that track blood pressure, respiratory rates and sleep patterns at home. Perhaps a drugstore or healthy food chain will partner with Peloton — points for pedaling.
  • The different perspective of an entire generation. Perhaps greater than any pandemic side effect will be the extent to which it has changed the formative years of the youngest generation. From toddlers who spent an entire year with both mom and dad to pre-teens learning to prioritize the greater good over personal interests, the pandemic will leave an indelible imprint. Opportunity: Simple: Plan today’s experiences for tomorrow’s consumers. Young consumers are paying close attention to their parent’s actions, and retailers have an opportunity to support the interests of both. Developing shopper programs for giving back, for acts of kindness, for charitable donations, for earth-friendly choices, will resonate across all generations, and there is no down side.

The one behavior that won’t change, never has, is that consumers will find their own best ways to carry on. They will look to retailers for help to make the experience easier, and retailers should look to themselves to additionally make the experience positively lasting — ensuring comfort, trust, safety and even fun.

By working together, using insights, innovation and communication, we all should reach the light sooner.

Bryan Pearson is a Featured Contributor to The Wise Marketer and currently serves as a director and strategic advisor to a number of loyalty-related organizations. He is the former CEO of LoyaltyOne.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Be sure to follow Bryan on Twitter for more on retail, loyalty, and the customer experience.