Should Stores Have Been Doing This All Along? 6 Ways The Pandemic Is Forcing Retail Reinvention

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By: Bryan Pearson |

Posted on June 9, 2020

The Threat Of Illness Is Reconstructing Retail. The Timing Is Past Due.

As retailers gradually reopen their locations with changes that mitigate the potential spread of Covid-19, shoppers are being treated to a rare industry renaissance that includes some of the most creative and ingenious thinking we have seen from the sales floor in recent history.

Not too surprisingly, consumers have already grown accustomed to some of these changes – think Plexiglas dividers at the registers, hand sanitizer dispensers and curbside pickup among retailers that remain open. What all retailers should be paying closer attention to – and what might more dramatically alter shopper expectations – are those clever concepts springing forth from the minds of merchants forced to generate sales under completely new circumstances.

These concepts, often executed by local independents, highlight the ingenuity of retailing and pose an important question. And it’s one the industry should regularly ask itself.

Should Retailers Have Been Doing This All Along?

In some cases, the onset of the pandemic has required retailers to quickly adapt technologies they were too cautious to roll out earlier. In the more impressive instances, merchants are retrofitting technologies and other services to resolve the unprecedented challenge of contagion-free commerce. These purchase concepts function on the fundamental basics of treating customers well and building the best experience they can, under the circumstances.

Here are some examples that are worth replicating in the retail setting – virtual and physical.

Zooming in on experience. Enterprising companies are finding inventive ways to stay connected with their customers virtually. Among them: Flâneur wines in Oregon began offering one-hour private tastings, via Zoom streaming. For a fee, Flâneur ships four bottles to the recipient (free shipping) along with empty sample bottles so customers can divvy up the wine and deliver it to fellow tasters. One of the winery’s staff describes the wines and answers questions remotely. Flâneur also hosts twice-weekly Zoom happy hours, during which fans collectively enjoy their favorite bottles with members of the winery’s team (streaming from the tasting bar). These options could remain after the tasting room reopens, for fans who live in another state or locals who are cautious about venturing out.

Rewriting the book on basic merchandising. Retailers have learned that their 2019 playbooks do not apply to the Covid-19 situation. Some are taking advantage of the disruption, including sellers of those basic items shoppers are increasingly turning to – like books. Type Books in Toronto is taking the opportunity to compete with the big online players by offering blind, curated book selections. For $100, it will send a customer a “mystery bag” of masked books in the genre the shopper has selected.

From curbside to concierge. Curbside pickup is now pretty much expected, and therefore a competitive area for all merchants. However, it can limit impulse buys. Best Buy appeared to have considered last-minute needs as well as convenience when it closed stores in March and transitioned first to curbside-only shopping and then added in-store, appointment-only shopping. Each customer is provided a mask upon arrival, is assigned a store associate who serves as a safe-distance concierge, and is guided through the store to the items he or she wants (including unplanned goods). Depending on the size of the store, the service permits 10 to 24 customers at a time. It’s reasonable to expect Best Buy and other retailers might incorporate concierge and appointment service in locations where it makes sense, as an elevated experience and to stand apart.

From no-contact shopping to full self-reliance. App-based purchase and checkout technology was available before the pandemic, but many retailers were slow to adopt it. Now, those merchants that were testing and fine-tuning their scan-and-go apps early on, including Meijer, Kroger Co. and 7-Eleven, have a leg up on the competition. The technology enables shoppers to complete an entire trip without coming into contact with an associate and risking viral spread, by enabling their phones to scan product barcodes in the aisle and then allowing the shoppers to pay at a self-checkout lane or directly through the app (linked to a credit card).

Repackaging the ingredients for new experiences. Recognizing they had a surplus of ingredients and a shrinking customer base, restaurants have set up bodegas that offer a select set of grocery items. In doing so, these restaurants are giving their customers two experiences at once: They get to safely pick up their takeout, fuss-free, plus have the fixings for future, restaurant-quality meals. To inspire their diners, many restaurants (including Alter in Miami, Florida, and Forno Osteria, in Cincinnati, Ohio) began broadcasting how-to tutorials of their popular dishes. And Blackbird Baking in Toronto found a way for its customers to eat its bread and bake it, too – offering consumer-sized specialty flours from its suppliers.

Creating new retail streams. Many seafood and meat wholesalers that serve restaurants, including Ashley Foods in Philadelphia, also are seeing an opportunity to sell directly to the consumer. They have rapidly developed entire new systems to do so – with websites, delivery systems and specialty packs that cater to those who are homebound. It will be interesting to see how these services continue once the restaurant business comes back, but one fact is hard to ignore: Restaurants will operate at limited capacity for the foreseeable future, meaning food wholesalers may build a more substantial retail business they could carry into the future.

Renaissance Moment: Retailers Need To Take Risks

The disarming practicality and creativity of these efforts proves that raw energy and survival instincts can open up a willingness to test new and untraditional concepts. Many of these concepts are affordable for the merchants, yet easy for shoppers and can be built into ongoing retail service models permanently, or revived occasionally as special opportunities.

Let’s hope the ideas keep coming. The Covid-19 virus has nurtured a renaissance that comes with an important lesson: It is better to embrace the “good is better than perfect” state to which all of us are being forced to adapt, then to throw one’s arms in the air and declare defeat.

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.