While global leaders face down the colossal dilemma of how to balance the cost of human life against economic hardship, retailers face their own dilemmas. In searching for new ways to maintain and build relationships with consumers, they also face a tension between generating sales during a period of extreme economic hardship and respecting the threats to life and livelihood that have altered consumer priorities and preferences.

Retailers have the tough challenge of adapting quickly to a fast-changing situation whilst attempting to anticipate what they need to do for the future. Which measures they invest in now will still be relevant later on? This much depends on whether these shifts in shopping behavior will become permanent, or whether we revert back to our old ways when freedoms are lifted.

Our assumption is a gradual shift back to normality, but for now, shoppers have been denied access to physical stores, and for those they can visit, they simply don’t want to spend any more time than they need to. As a result, a boom in online sales is pushing retailers to quickly scale up their capacity, expediting a process already underway. In this sense, retail & retailers are not changing, just accelerating more quickly into the future.

The retailers who depend on social experience have been hit badly as a result of lockdowns. How will those parts of the existing retail landscape emerge as the crisis comes under control? Brands and retailers have been testing creative social experiences online, and while credit should be given for the effort, we all still yearn for the real thing. Once the shackles are off and the worst of the virus behind us, the retailers who weather the storm are likely to balance higher proportion of online sales with ever more social physical retail experiences.

There is little doubt that the crisis will rewrite the retail landscape, unleashing destruction and innovation in equal measures. If the resulting outcome is more online and more experience (accelerations of already existing trends), what type of measures do physical retailers need to take to manage the transition for their customers?

Before Coronavirus, retailers had been facing a fast pace of change driven by evolving customer demands. Now, a totally new set of evolving demands add to the pressure. Retailers need to be prepared for further continued uncertainty. That means being ready with flexible retail solutions that enable stores to quickly change and adapt their spaces for ongoing changes to customer needs. Mostly lumbered with fixed displays, food retailers especially need to invest now in more adaptable equipment.

As a result of hygiene concerns around staffed checkouts and in-store touchscreens, retailers will speed up the widespread deployment of solutions to optimize personal devices for product information and payment. Barcode scanning technology for product information, pay-as-you-go & checkout-free solutions will become more common. Another possibility is that retailers step away from touchscreen self-checkout and ordering stations.

To facilitate greater numbers of online orders, stores will need to prioritize spaces for pick-up points. Retailers will adapt their spaces, prioritizing areas at shopfronts and entrances. Larger retailers who have not yet made the move could implement drive-through pick-up stations within car parks or even unused garden centres. Automated pick-up locations could also spread into neighbourhoods and communities.

Stores have rushed to implement temporary distance markings, however, over time, more considered solutions will need to be implemented if concerns remain. Wider entrances and exits, more space for queuing, increased aisle widths and automated door one-in-one-out entrance controls. Removable transparent checkout barriers will become ubiquitous, allowing retailers to quickly respond to new developments.

Sales staff, food servers & specialist consultants are just a few of the retail roles that depend on close interaction with customers. While some functions are able to move online, many need to face the customer, so expect a more hygiene conscious approach without the sterile feeling. Protective masks, overalls, and gloves will become part of the uniform. Sneeze guards have never been so en vogue!.. Appealing displays around tactile products & food will shield without losing product standout. Regular rigorous cleaning regimes will be the norm.

Public safety is expected to remain an ongoing and continuously evolving concern for retailers. To support more agile public information and instructional ‘how to behave’ store guides, expect a higher degree of in-store audio and visual communications. For hyper-responsive, dynamic and localized messages we could see the adoption of broadcast screens within aisles, front-of-store, and checkout areas.

Retailers will need to carefully consider what to do about in-store eating and drinking spaces. Even with social restrictions lifted, retailers need to be ready to react quickly if the situation changes in future. For those with existing eat-in spaces, they need to consider implementing flexible solutions that allow them to adapt spaces to accommodate other priority offers, or to flex their spaces from sit-down to take away.

Ongoing movement restrictions may force people to shop locally. Higher volumes at smaller local convenience stores will force a rethink in managing customer flows and queuing. Measures might include increasing aisle widths, more permanent distance marking in aisle and checkout, continued controls at doors. We could see the general trend toward smaller store formats accelerate, plus more trialing and rolling out more fully automated kiosks.

Even as social measures are lifted, customers are likely to remain wary about rushing back to cafes, restaurants, and bars, which will see a continued share of consumers eating & drinking budgets falling to home consumption alternatives. Supermarkets will move beyond emergency response mode with a more considered adaptation of their product ranges and services. Even greater focus on home cooking & mealtime inspiration could see retailers developing new menu, recipe & décor ideas to help customers keep things interesting at home. Essential items could also be rearranged to make them easier to find.

Humanity is undergoing a psychological shock, so empathy and consideration is the order of the day. Retailers need to placing efforts to communicate and act with more care & consideration. Customers are hyper-aware in times of fear and uncertainly, meaning that actions of greed or generosity are amplified and remembered. It may sometimes feel like we are living with wartime-like measures, but the language doesn’t need to sound war-like.

At Interstore | Schweitzer we work closely every day with clients to develop bespoke retail solutions for store concepts. If you are interested in discussing how to integrate any of these topics into your customer experience, please get in touch.