• Paul Kelson

The ‘New’ New Normal in Retail

The coronavirus outbreak is reshaping retail, and companies will need to adjust.

We have faced several crises in the past both as a country and broadly as a humanity, but every time we have found a path forward and come out stronger as a society. COVID-19 is no different and while we will go through a shift in consumer behavior, some temporary and some long-lasting, eventually we will be back to normal or, as everyone is calling it, new normal. But first, we will have to go through the “new” new normal.

We are already seeing major shifts in retail already with curbside pickup becoming the de facto in-store shopping mode and mobile apps had their strongest months in March and April. As retail begins to reopen, brands and retailers with broad omnichannel strategies will have an easier time providing a customer experience that can survive — maybe even thrive — in a post-COVID-19 world.

So what will the new retail experience look like in a post-COVID-19 world? Here are the five trends that will reshape retail in the post-COVID-19 world.

There will be a “new, new normal” before we settle into our “new normal.”

As stores throughout our country begin to reopen, our return to a new normal will take place gradually. Initially, consumers will be extra cautious, avoiding shopping in-store when possible. When they do venture out, shoppers will likely maintain strict social distancing when in public, which will affect store capacities and may necessitate the need for reduced customer capacity anywhere in the range of 25 to 50 percent.

Consumers will be reluctant to touch products and payments will go completely contactless. I call this the “new, new normal” and it will require significant adjustments from retailers. Over time, consumers’ will settle into the new — albeit different — normal.

Curbside pickup and store fulfilment are becoming more widespread.

Foot traffic in stores will be significantly reduced for some time. Even when stores are permitted to open, it will take time for consumers to regain that “feel-good factor” needed to comfortably return to a retail store. Fortunately, the pandemic introduced many new customers to the concepts of BOPIS and curbside pickup, as they proved to be safe and convenient ways to get essential items during the quarantine.

As stores reopen, and consumers try to minimize unnecessary personal contact, ordering products online and retrieving them either in-store or at the curb will become more widespread. Having learned of the convenience that BOPIS and curbside pick up offer, many consumers will continue to shop for both essential and nonessential items this way post-pandemic.

The best example of curbside pickup done right is Best Buy. The end-to-end experience is phenomenal, right from making a purchase on Best Buy mobile app to getting notified when order is ready to pick up and then to eventual curbside pickup at Best Buy is seamless.

Rolling out modern POS to stores can aid in consumer confidence.

Convenience and safety will be the key to a successful customer experience in a post-pandemic world, and store associates will play a huge role in achieving this. Arriving in-store to pick up a purchased item, only to find it is out of stock will be unacceptable. Similarly, waiting in line to pay may put consumers’ health at risk. Store associates must be equipped with the mobile and modern POS needed to make the customer journey safe, efficient, personal and easy.

Each associate should have the ability to check inventory in real-time, communicate with customers outside of the store, schedule appointments, check loyalty information, access customer profiles and assist with contactless mobile checkout.

The need for integrated inventory management will grow.

Upon reopening, stores will face a real inventory challenge. They have off-season inventory still on the floor, delivery on new inventory for the current season may have been canceled and an increase in online and mobile orders may put pressure on the current inventory management systems. It will be more important than ever for brands to optimize inventory management to provide excellent customer service and to avoid losing the sale.

Brands with the right technology will offer in-store and online customers an endless aisle of merchandise by tapping into company-wide inventory, effectively turning all stores into additional fulfilment channels. Auto-routing technology will allow brands to deliver products to customers in the most efficient way, based on the customer’s location and the company’s inventory positions.

Engaging with customers via mobile apps will be more important.

Mobile, native apps will be a safe and effective way for brands to connect with their most loyal customers once stores reopen. In-app messaging can be used to notify customers of new store procedures and layouts to accommodate social distancing, changing store hours, new products, sales and promotions. Shopping appointments can be made directly with store associates to avoid congested sales floors and fitting rooms. Products can be ordered ahead for in-store or curbside pickup or at-home delivery and digital wallets can facilitate self-checkout and contactless payment, both at home and in-store. Brands’ native apps are a great way to reestablish engagement with consumers and engender brand loyalty that may have been lost during the quarantine.

Many of the changes we will likely see in the coming weeks and months may actually enhance the overall customer experience, making it safer and more efficient to shop both in-store and online. Retailers who have embraced a fully integrated omnichannel strategy to serve their customers anywhere, anytime prior to the pandemic will find the transition to the new normal easier. Those who hadn’t must quickly learn to embrace technology that connects the brand, store associate, and customer in a way that conveys safety, personalisation, and efficiency. The customer experience of the future is arriving now.

By Nitin Mangtani 

Nitin Mangtani is founder and chief executive officer of PredictSpring.

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