As 2020 comes to a close, the pandemic is a long way from being over. But the initial shock to in-store retail in the first half of the year—when in-store shopping bottomed-out by more than 80 percent—has slowly faded. By late September, the drop-off had rebounded to only around 25 percent.
Here’s the bad news: a 25 percent drop in footfall is still a massive shortfall under anything approaching normal circumstances. It’s certainly not a desirable position to be in for bricks-and-mortar retailers with the all-important six-week holiday shopping period underway, and Covid-19 still spreading rapidly throughout the United States. Innovative retail companies are desperate to find ways to recapture the lost footfall while creating safe shopping environments for their employees and customers. And the answer may be found in the great outdoors.
Glance at any public park, beach, swimming pool or restaurant patio this year and it seems obvious that a large share of Americans—more than a third, according to a survey by Hub Research, are motivated to spend as much time outdoors as possible, where the risk of Covid-19 transmission is considered lower. In order to make the most of this extremely challenging holiday shopping season (and beyond), it is incumbent on retailers to apply this finding to their retail environments.
It’s easier said than done, depending on factors including the weather, and local public health measures that may restrict public gatherings above a certain size. But several innovative retail companies seem to have figured out ways to juggle their retail operations strategy when it comes to navigating the present normal, while banking on the fact that some of these adaptations are likely to be popular with customers, and therefore, here to stay. Here are four things retailers should keep in mind when planning to leverage the outdoors.
Converting to Curbside
Before 2020, in-store pickup was a niche offering for select retailers and big-box stores—a compromise that offered the convenience of online shopping with the instant gratification of same-day fulfillment. But this convenience came at a cost to bricks-and-mortar retailers: if customers no longer needed to venture through a store to find what they came to buy, they were unlikely to pad their purchase with an extra item or two along the way.
In a Covid-19 world, however, in-store pickup is now curbside pickup, allowing customers to shop a store without ever setting foot in it. It’s a necessity brought on by the pandemic that has proven to be a valuable new sales channel (or form of retail therapy) for retailers and consumers. With 60 percent of consumers planning to continue shopping curbside even after the pandemic subsides, according to a McKinsey study, innovative retail companies are exploring new ways to streamline the curbside experience as part of their overall retail operations strategy.
Lowe’s has partnered with Parcel Pending to roll out contactless self-service lockers at all 1,700 U.S. stores. The lockers, located in the store vestibule, will store customer purchases and allow customers to scan a barcode to retrieve their orders without having to venture fully inside, or come into contact with store associates, which keeps both parties safe. Even farther removed from the traditional checkout kiosks, vacant parking lots are being used as open-air distribution centers by retailers such as Walmart and Target. Customers park in a designated spot and wait for their purchases to be wheeled out to their cars.
What undergirds all of these curbside pickup success stories is a simple truth: customers crave the act of driving to the store to shop, even if it means never even getting out of the car. And with house-bound consumers looking for reasons to safely leave the house while the pandemic continues, a trip to the shopping mall parking lot might be as rewarding—for both consumer and retailer—as a trip to the actual shopping mall once was.
Rethinking Experiential Retail
While most retailers were able to resume some scaled-down semblance of their retail operations strategy after the first wave of the pandemic, high-touch experiential retail remains deeply impacted. Bringing customers into an enclosed space for up-close-and-personal interactions with products and activations—it’s called “retail theater” for a reason—went from being the darling of the retail industry in 2019 to a fraught proposition practically overnight.
For some large retailers like Nike—which opened its second global House of Innovation store, in Paris, in August—it was a matter of reconfiguring the space for the social-distancing era. But other innovative retail companies have gone more outside the box—literally—when it comes to creating experiences its customers crave. In the fall, Lowe’s capitalized on the Halloween rush by offering curbside trick-or-treating, complete with drive-up candy and pumpkin giveaways. And Walmart brought thousands of customers to its stores—well, its parking lots—with the Walmart Drive In, a series of family friendly pop-up movie screenings in communities across the country.
Depending on local guidelines concerning store capacity and in-store retail, these kinds of events may or not immediately translate to same-day in-store or curbside sales. But they are effective means of furthering the customer relationship during the pandemic. And when looking back on 2020 and 2021, a customer is likely to remember a memorable in-person event (and retailer) favorably whether they purchased anything that day or not.
Take to the Streets- Where Possible
The United States doesn’t have the kind of outdoor market culture commonly seen in Europe and Southeast Asia. But open-air retail is a centuries-old concept enjoying a renaissance during the pandemic. Transitioning from a traditional bricks-and-mortar space to selling wares al fresco is fraught with challenges—the weather, managing inventory, having enough space—but those who are able to transition to the great outdoors, even part-time, have every incentive to do so right now.
Having a supportive landlord helps: One mall owner in California reportedly built open-air kiosks on the second floor of a parking garage for luxury retailers like Balenciaga and Givenchy, according to the Wall Street Journal. For retailers situated adjacent to public property, having the green light from the local government is just as important before flinging open the doors to sidewalk retail: New York City’s Open Storefronts project allowed ground-floor retail operators to display their goods for sale, provided certain rigorous guidelines were observed, through the end of 2020.
Decompression Before the Front Door
Whether it’s being used for curbside pickup, trick-or-treating or a place for customers to line up before entering, the outside of a brick-and-mortar store has taken on new importance during Covid-19. Retailers often treat spaces near the front of the store as decompression zones, or sensory buffers between the outside world and the store within. It’s a fundamental principle of store design, but it also has the potential to be a chokepoint.
Today, the decompression zone is more than that. Now, authorities such as NRF recommend using the store entrance—and as much space before the entrance as possible—to give customers the information they need regarding safety protocols and in-store navigation. The more of this exchange that happens before a customer enters the store, the more efficient the customer’s journey through the store will be. And in a time of reduced store capacity, greater efficiency means greater throughput, and potentially higher overall sales.
Outdoor retail is not a panacea for every problem afflicting the retail industry during Covid-19, but merely one more coping mechanism innovative retail companies can use to navigate the remaining turbulence until more normal retail patterns begin to return. Curbside pickup and a reorientation toward more outdoor retail channels are likely to be among the long-lasting legacies of the pandemic, and the more headway retailers can make in these areas now, the better off they are likely to be in the long run.
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