July 6, 2020
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has already had a transformative effect on the retail industry. With no end in sight, brands and consumers alike are being presented with more questions than answers. The resulting environment of uncertainty can be seen as a negative—or one that leaves room for positive reinvention.
Entering the fifth month of commercial upheaval, the road to change is not only dug out—its paved and lined. All that's left for brands to do is traverse it as efficiently as possible. This path has a number of now-expected turns, some of which we cover today; it undoubtedly also contains unseen obstacles that will require brand marketers to be quick on their feet with creative solutions.
If one thing has been consistent amid this prolonged crisis, it's inconsistency. That's borne out of the nature of the virus itself. Scientists are still learning how to best limit its spread, impacting short-term decisions and longterm planning in every sector of the market differently.
Uncertainty is only remedied by certainty, even in small doses. Brands representatives build that by absorbing as much knowledge as possible on a subject, communicating clearly with affected parties and reacting with thoughtfulness and intent.
With retail largely an in-person endeavor, even as recently as 2019, brands' responsibility to their consumers is great. It's important that some level of adaptation be considered and enacted. Whether change is made to protect public health, promote fairness and diversity or simply support the bottom line—business-as-usual is just bad business. Now is a time for positive change.
Everyone is in the same boat; why not paddle in the same direction? This is the time to reach out to brand contemporaries, even competitors, for brainstorms and best practices. Keep and eye on neighboring states and how similar businesses are being affected by updated guidelines. Listen to staff and involve them in the process, especially those working on the front line. And, of course, identify a handful of reliable sources for up-to-date legislation, forecasting and commercial trends as they relate to the coronavirus.
Extend communication to end-users, too. Retail brands will benefit in the long-run by being open and direct about the steps they're taking to protect the well-being of both staff members and shoppers for the forseeable future.
So, what changes? The first things that come to mind for many are the store spaces themselves. Along with on-again-off-again mask requirements, we've seen a quick evolution of floor vinyls and store signage applications designed to control traffic flow and density. Clever and cost-effective as they may be, steps like these require full public cooperation to be effective. That's a tough nut to crack, pandemic or not.
The next iteration of changes will be more involved, requiring brands to reimagine spaces and the consumer experience within them altogether. By using this opportunity to develop guided brand experiences rather than passive ones, businesses can take a more active and meaningful role in the process of in-store commerce while facilitating a safer environment for everyone involved.
Operational changes like limiting on-hand product, deploying no-touch POP, expanding curbside pick-up and moving to an open layout merchandising model all move the needle in the right direction.
This industry shift had momentum before COVID-19, with consumers starting to prioritize in-store experiences on the same level as core points like pricing and availability. The current commercial climate only pushes it further. Smart brick-and-mortar brands will work to break the mold in their niche to earn the attention and respect of a pandemic-weary public.
That said, it's obvious how important digital offerings have become across the board. For example, a vast majority of the restaurant industry, stuck in slow motion with buggy apps and out-of-date online menus, went to a seamless all-digital ordering format in a matter of weeks. Smart brands, local and corporate, pivoted sharply to survive. Eventually, they'll reap the benefits of operating tightly-aligned dual-facing businesses.
That mindset applies to traditional retailers, too, they just have more time to react now that stores are again open. Online experiences should match in-person ones as best they can. Social media accounts, customer service lines and e-commerce environments are being leaned upon more heavily than ever before to convey brand personality and mission. Even more, the services themselves (browsing, payment, shipping, etc.) should run with a precision and professionalism that blurs the lines, inviting consumers to forget why they're not standing in their favorite store—even if only for a minute.
Whether a brand's focus is in-store or online, marketing must go on. Silence at a time like this is problematic, to put it simply. Early studies have even shown that both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar businesses that did not decrease their media spend saw sales increase by an average of 81% between March 19th and March 29th, compared to the month prior.
Sensitive times call for sensitive messaging, though. This isn't a call to release filler content produced before the pandemic or that lacks appropriate tone. Retail advertising should be measured and meaningful; steer clear of sales-speak and be extra careful with attempts at humor.
People all around the world, in our corner of it especially, are in need of trustworthy optimistic voices in their day-to-day—not fluffy monologues by celebrity spokespeople, but real impactful communication delivered with the purpose of bettering the lives and moods of people who may consume it.
Use this time to dig deep into what services, products, promotions and innovations can be offered with this intent. Businesses that prioritize only the well-being of their audiences during this time will be remembered and appreciated for doing so.
Big ideas are shiny and exciting. Some are easy to develop; most aren’t. We specialize in thoughtfully executing the many steps between ideation and activation, willing and able to lend an experienced hand during any phase of a brainstorm.
From bird’s-eye brand strategy to street-level staffing, we can help.
No one has all the answers. A snapshot of the industry later this year, even, may yield an outlook much different than what's presented, here. But, the retail industry will grow better through these adversaries; it has to. Smart marketers and forward-thinking brands will drive that change by stepping up and hitting the ball that's thrown their way, curve or not.
We specialize in retail experience design and can help your store safely and effectively adapt to meet the needs of a new world.