Redefining the Retail Sector for a Post-COVID America

Two shoppers wearing face masks looking at a mobile device

Retail was entirely different in the beginning of 2020. In just a few short months, retailers have made leaps and bounds in creating new virtual and in-person experiences for both customers and employees.

As restrictions begin to ease and people are able to move around more freely, what does that mean for retail businesses? For some companies, it means getting back to the old way of doing things. For many more, however, it means an opportunity to create more optimal experiences to stand out from the pack in post-COVID America.

Contactless engagement has seen a necessary rise since lockdown, especially in grocery, apparel, and consumer goods. Those who were strategic in the beginning have reaped the benefits in the form of continued customer and employee loyalty (even in these times where millions are still jobless).

We expect many of the contactless and self-serve features put in place during the pandemic to stay in place, long after a semblance of normalcy returns. Panera, for example, has offered Rapid Pick-Up in most locations for a while now, but they’ve since added Curbside, Rapid Ordering, Delivery, and Drive-Thru options in some stores. 

Another winner is Starbucks, who has used “order ahead” technology far longer than most food retailers and is now restructuring stores in the U.S. to prioritize customers who complete their transactions digitally.

In a time when most people talk about how experiences in general are worse than they were pre-pandemic, how can you create touchpoints with your employees and customers that stand out in a positive way? 

Here are a few ways to differentiate your brand and use technology to your advantage.

Focus on the Customer Experience

If you didn’t know by now, it’s pretty clear that technology is here to stay. Those retailers who embrace the change will continue to maintain customer loyalty, while others may close their doors forever.

I led a virtual panel discussion last month showcasing the way some businesses are prioritizing their customers. 

Ashley Conger, Chief of Staff at Neighborhood Goods, an in-person and online department store, advised how they were able to pivot when lockdowns began. They created a Neighborhood 101 series, where consumers could get quick, actionable tips to continue to live, work, and school at home. They also expanded their chat features, allowing those who wanted to shop at home the opportunity to work virtually with a stylist and “try on” items of interest prior to purchase.

Kroger grocery stores already offered Scan-Buy-Go options for shoppers in their stores before the pandemic, according to Brad Jewell, their Senior Product Designer, Purchasing & In-Store Experience. Customers would scan items using a handheld scanner as they shopped to speed up checkout and avoid waiting in line. 

They planned to roll this feature out using shoppers' smartphones in 2021, but instead sped up the release in several Ohio stores to test and perfect the new offering. They expect this option to roll out across the rest of their stores by late fall this year.

Fasika Melaku, Vice President of Learning and Development at Denny's, praised their IT team for updating their app so quickly to offer a contactless experience for their customers. The app now offers an up-to-date menu that’s easy to navigate, even for their mostly elderly clientele. 

Customers can also submit and pay for orders with an option for curbside and drive-thru, where available.

Prioritize Employee Safety and Success

While customers are the lifeblood of your business, you can’t forget the employees who keep the business running. Every time a change is implemented, employees have to adapt and adjust their typical procedures - sometimes even more so than customers.

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to do something in the app and have an employee give you a blank stare and tell you they have no idea how it works or what to do. According to Brad, Kroger has done well to ensure associates are ready and willing to help customers embrace the technology changes. 

“Being able to focus on contactless from the associate’s standpoint, I think to us, is even more, or as important, as the customer experience.”

One thing both employees and employers should be ready to embrace is reskilling for new hires and existing employees. As changes continue at breakneck speeds, both sides of the consumer experience will need to learn new skills. 

“For 2021, reskilling is going to be a revolution,” and according to Fasika, “If, as an organization, we’re not ready to do that, we’ll be left behind.” Denny’s is poised and ready to teach skills to anyone willing to put in the work, as long as they lead with heart.

These are just some examples of ways to prioritize employees and ensure they’re benefiting from your company’s digital transformation, as well as your customers.

Be Adaptable

The most important element in post-COVID America is flexibility. Businesses that have been able to open may close yet again if the number of infections begin to creep back up. Some were quick to shift employees to working from home while others were not able to be as nimble. Retailers in consumer goods have extra challenges when offering in-person services and having to change them to reflect contactless requirements.

Neighborhood Goods found themselves, like so many other in-person retailers, with spaces no longer filled with paying customers. Other retailers were panicked with too much in supply and not enough space or means to offer online or contactless options. Neighborhood Goods offered them shelf space and order pick-up services to help them meet demand. Kroger is also ready to add reservation options to their app in case capacity restrictions are reinstated.

Companies like these, offering innovative ways to continue servicing their customers, and even other businesses, are the ones who will have the competitive advantage now and in the future. 

Continuing to develop and test contactless experiences for both employees and customers will help brands build resiliency and give them a stronger foothold in the industry. Be adaptable, be willing to change, and embrace technology, and you too, can survive as a retailer in post-COVID America.