Retail after lockdown: how stores can prepare now

One day it will be that time again: retail staff will raise the blinds for the first time in months, unlock the entrance doors and open them wide.

And then? Will anyone show up?

Avantgarde managing director Martin Schnaack on the most important success factors for stationary retail and how stores now can prepare for a new start.

Certainly, in the first days and weeks there will be no shortage of customers; after all, consumers have been dreaming for months of not only walking past shops but actually entering them. In mid-term however, things could be different. People's shopping habits have changed. The fact that the retail industry was also able to make a profit during the year of Corona in 2020 is mainly due to online and mail-order business.

Before Corona, convenience was the magic word in retail: convenience first. Vegetables are bought ready to cook, fruit salad is pre-cut. Non-food products can be selected and ordered online – try them on and take them home. Before the pandemic, click & collect hadn't really caught on, and even with the current lockdown, this shopping hybrid feels more like a band-aid than a shopping pleasure. In the Covid-19 pandemic, brick-and-mortar retail has finally lost the battle for convenience: no in-person shopping is as convenient as being able to order goods online and have them delivered to your door.

The hunger for real interactions is greater than ever

But people strive for more than just comfort. We are social beings with a great need for encounters and experiences - the endless months of working from home and social distancing have brought this to our senses. Screaming with happiness when the delivery rings with your parcel? That was once upon a time. Opening a box is no longer something special. With every lockdown extension, consumers have grown hungrier for what used to be called the shopping experience. Meeting people. Experiencing products. Seeing and being seen.

There is therefore a great magic surrounding the moment when shops will open. It is now up to the industry to take advantage of this unique opportunity by offering what no online shop can offer: the human factor as a USP.

Strengthening the human factor: 5 tips for retailers

- Approach instead of waiting: Smart entrepreneurs bring themselves to the forefront now and build a new closeness from a distance. They tell their customers about the last weeks and months in mailings, on social media or in newsletters and about the hope of real encounters in the near future. They offer vouchers, announce opening events and raffle goodies and subsequently increase the common anticipation of meeting in the store.

- Actions instead of words:"We look forward to seeing you again." Notes like these are currently hanging on many store doors. But do these few words on paper really feel like authentic joy for a reunion? Even if it is perhaps too early for a handshake and the thought of security will be with us for a while yet,as soon as the doors open again a person should stand there and greet the customers personally.How nice to see you again!

The customer journey has been extended to the front door by the demands of social distancing: people are queuing to be allowed into the shop . But very few retailers actually think about how their customers are doing out there. They could, for example, provide them with drinks or use apps or other digital tools to make their waiting time more pleasant and interactive. Apple is leading the way here, advisors already greet the customers at the door.

- Dialogue instead of service:"If you liked that, you might also like this", online stores have algorithms and chatbots. But retail has real people. Nevertheless, in the past, the first and sometimes only human touchpoint often took place at the checkout. All too seldom do sales assistants take the customer's perspective. Far too rarely do they seek dialogue with them.

There is so much potential for the human factor along the customer journey, eye contact and personal greetings. A friendly approach and sincere interest in the customer conversation asking what is bothersome about the shopping experience on site. Employees must be trained to turn even annoyance into a good customer experience. Every employee is a brand ambassador. And even if no purchase is made, the goal is that every customer leaves the store smiling and with the feeling of a positive experience.

- Reunion instead of a new beginning: Retailers are eagerly hoping for a new start, and may even have used the standstill for renovations and other changes. Customers, however, look back with nostalgia to the phase in which the word Corona merely stood for a beer brand: everything should be as it once was. The retail sector must also live up to this longing and therefore build on the past instead of rashly letting the familiar disappear.

- Back to the future: But with all due respect for cherished rituals, the focus must be on the future: what felt so special after the lockdown quickly becomes routine again. It is the task of brick-and-mortar to offer the customer a real shopping experience beyond the first reunion: with surprising moments, outstanding product presentations, variety in the product range, special encounters.

It was already evident before Corona: the process of selling itself is moving more and more into the background. Large brands such as Adidas or Nike have long relied on on-site experiences: first and foremost, they want the customer to experience the product in person. In the future, the point-of-sale will increasingly take place on the sofa. The local store must therefore become even more a point-of-experience. And don't just think about business-to-consumer, dare to think about people-to-people.

Martin Schnaack founded Avantgarde in 1985 and developed the company from an event agency into a global multi-player in the experience economy. Today, with more than 850 employees in ten locations, he advises companies on the development of brand experiences. His book "Experience first - Marken erlebbar machen" was recently published in Germany.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels


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