Two Cases and 5 expert views on how retailers are investing in safety AND customer experience

Around the world, stores are reopening or are planning to reopen. In the next few weeks, all of us will discover a new shopping experience. As all of us have turned to online shopping in the last few weeks and many are wondering how the offline retail world will change.

In this blog, I would like to share some examples and some expert views on how retailers are preparing for this new phase. It is obvious they are all investing in safety measures for their employees and customers. In this article I want to look beyond safety and share insights on how retailers are also investing in a new kind of customer experience while observing the necessary safety measures.

Creativity, people and positive surprises make a big difference

Creativity among entrepreneurs is at an all-time high. Some entrepreneurs will complain and focus on the current limitations, others will create new experiences to make the best of this situation. In the Netherlands, there is a restaurant called Mediamatic whose owner created small separate dining rooms for their customers. It is completely safe and it also looks like a cool and unique dining experience at the same time. These are beautiful examples of a safe and unique experience.

Small, warm gestures can make a difference these days. If people have to wait in line to enter your store, how can you make that waiting experience better? If it rains, make sure you have umbrellas available. Maybe you can create two lines: one for people who are dropping by to browse and buy on the spot, and a second line for people who called, mailed or webshopped in advance so they can bypass the longer queue when picking up their products. Maybe there is even a way to surprise your customers in a positive way. This Belgian bakery is offering their customers a free croissant while waiting in line (thanks for sharing this on your Facebook Harry De Mey).

 

Input from the field: two testimonials from retailers that are getting ready to reopen

Bart Claes, CEO of Belgian Fashion Chain, JBC

When the JBC stores re-open, our focus will of course be on safety for our employees and our customers. All available tools will be used: focus on social distancing during the shopping experience, plexiglass at the cash register, hand sanitizers at the entrance and disinfection of the fitting rooms. In addition, we want to use all our available channels to optimize the experience. We will still motivate people to buy online by offering services like free home delivery, longer return periods, promoting trying on clothes at home so they don’t need to use our fitting rooms. In the store, we want to give people the chance to look at a set of uniquely designed fashion items like our baby rompers for mother’s and father’s day or ‘De Mol’ sweaters (a popular TV show in Belgium).

 

Mathieu Renier, Decathlon Belgium

The last few weeks were very interesting for our company. We received so many requests for online orders that we simply couldn’t keep up. When we launched a request for extra people on social media 50 of our customers came to help us inside 20 minutes, which was a fantastic moment for us.

To support online sales we have asked our employees to use their own social media channels to help customers with purchases or sales. They basically act like they do at the store, but then without the physical store. Customers love this personal touch. Our customers have to miss the stores but they don’t have to miss our people. The results are very promising.

Next to online efforts to reach out to the customer we are working on some cool experiences in the offline world. Soon we will be driving around neighbourhoods in a Decathlon branded bus. In the bus we will serve healthy smoothies and offer customers the opportunity to buy sports gear. We’re starting this experiment because some customers don’t feel like coming to our stores, so we need to bring the store to them.

Very soon we will be allowed to open our offline stores again and next to the safety measure we want to add some fun aspects as well. One of the tests involves an ‘active waiting line’. We would love to organize some stretching and warming-up exercises for our customers while they’re waiting in line to enter the store. It’s important that visiting our store is still a fun experience even with the safety restrictions in place, which we will obviously respect at all times.

 

Some Expert Views

Gino Van Ossel, Professor Retail at the Vlerick Business School

Passing through security at any airport leaves me indifferent but on those rare occasions that I have to walk through a metal detector when entering a hotel this sparks a feeling of unsafety and fear. Stores reopening for business are facing that same paradox: safety measures to contain Covid-19 make customers feel unsafe and therefore raise their stress level.

That is particularly relevant as the majority of consumers feel nervous about leaving their home as businesses reopen (Ipsos News Release, Paris, April 27th 2020). So retailers should invest in reassuring the customer and creating a welcoming experience.

This starts with out of home communication. Is your store still top of mind? Are you in the evoked set? In times of social distancing and mouths masks, fun shopping and simply going into town are not the first priority. In fact, consumers will plan each store visit well in advance. Therefore, overspend in communication as your competitors will be reluctant to do so. With media offering discounts, you will earn yourself a higher share of voice for a lower spend.

In store, express how happy you are to see customers return to your shop. Use all in-store media to spread the message. Use the right tone of voice. Insert a thank you card or a small token of appreciation in their shopping bag. Encourage them more than ever to share their experiences on social media.

The critical success factor will be your store associates. They, too, may feel uncomfortable serving customers and running the risk of getting infected. So make sure they feel safe and comfortable because they will transfer their feelings and mood to the customer. More than ever happy people will result in happy customers so express how grateful you are that your staff is ready to roll and to create the right vibe.

Because in the end the safety measures are nothing but a condition to be allowed to compete. By contrast, the service and overall customer experience will result in a true competitive advantage.

 

Rik Vera, co-founder Nexxworks

To help guarantee a fun and agreeable shopping experience I like to give retailers 4 tips based on the assumption that people will be sensitive, insecure and perhaps even scared after 8 weeks of lockdown.

  1. Communicate clearly: Before and during the shopping experience make it as clear as possible what measures are in place to guarantee visitor safety at your place of business. No one likes to feel lost, stupid, clumsy or ill-adjusted. We can’t afford to shop on autopilot right now. Assist your customers in their experience. Do so online and at the shop, use your staff for this and put up as many signs and boards with instructions as necessary. Think of an airport you’ve never been to and where (the lack of) clear signage and orientation either makes you feel uncomfortable or completely at home.
  2. Keep it playful: All these measures are aimed at risk prevention. Writing instructions, arrows, one-way traffic… Before long it all adds up to a strict code that must be followed. Add a playful note to your instructions and keep things fun for your staff so they don’t start acting like overzealous police officers, like some security officers are known to do. Think of the funny instruction videos on a BA flight: the message is the same as in humourless videos but the playful touch brings a smile to your face.
  3. Make it personal: People have missed human warmth so show your customers you’ve missed them. Give your staff a shirt with their first name printed on them and let them introduce themselves. “Hi, I’m Rick, welcome to our store. It’s wonderful to have you.” Make sure you have someone to thank customers for their visit, ask them if they were able to find everything they wanted (perhaps they weren’t due to that one-way traffic and the unusual circumstances) and tell them to keep safe (and until next time).
  4. Be flexible: Due to safety constraints, the whole shopping experience is subjected to processes and procedures. Don’t be afraid to assist your customers in any way you can without breaking the rules. For instance, if at the end of the shopping experience a customer tells you (s)he was unable to find a specific item, you ‘will take care of it’.

 

Always do this in the short term. If the virus stays with us for some time yet – and odds are this will be the case – then we will have two more tough nuts to crack in the medium and the long term and it’s best to start brainstorming and experimenting today.

  1. Peak your customers’ curiosity. The big challenge will lie in finding how to observe the new safety standards while turning the ‘new way of shopping’ (due to corona restraints) into a voyage of discovery again instead of a boring, fast and safe ‘collection of goods’.
  2. New concepts. The signage, cordoned-off areas, cones, improvised Plexiglass… all of that won’t last forever. Eventually we will be forced to organise shops in a totally different way (see 1). This will require far-reaching, heavy and unexpected investments and, more than anything, a lot of creativity as well as trial and error.

 

Pascal Coppens, China expert and partner Nexxworks

Today, almost all Chinese cities are back to normal. Factories have reopened, supply chains are re-linked, everyone is back to work and retail stores and shopping malls are open again. But customers do not feel 100% safe yet. Traffic in shopping malls isn’t back to what it was before the crisis and consumers seem to be buying less. The general feeling is that consumption will rebound to former levels after the summer – about six months after reopening. Still, China doesn’t have a reputation for waiting around and new trends are popping up everywhere to shorten this period but also – and more importantly – to create a stronger bond with customers. Three trends to observe in China’s post-corona retail are: more ‘local’, more ‘live’ and more ‘loyal’.

  1. More Local: During times of uncertainty we turn to those who are closest to us and this new normal has fostered a revival of the local community retailers and producers. Local governments in China recognized this trend early on and have distributed billions of coupons to people to use in local retail stores in their cities. The more creative initiatives include promotions like in-store treasure hunts, free in-store training courses or meeting online celebrities. The biggest change however is in the transformation of retailers from a product or brand retailer to more of a community neighbourhood store.

The store is becoming a physical social meeting place for the community, transformed to create more experimental shopping and retail entertainment. Marketplace platforms like Alibaba or JD.com are helping these local retailers to become part of their new retail ecosystem by offering retailers CRM, payment, data, apps, delivery and supply chains.

  1. More Live: With 905 million internet users in China, Chinese consumers have become the most digital-savvy citizens on the planet. Live streaming in e-commerce emerged in China in 2014 and has gone global since 2018, but since the Covid-19 outbreak, small retailers in China have started using live streaming as their main lifeline, effectively making it mainstream. The number of live streaming shops in China has increased by more than 700% during the lockdown. Combined with the ‘going local’ trend, the biggest disruption in China during the crisis was for local farmers and small retailers in every category to start streaming their offer live: from food, private labels, clothes, homes, cars, cosmetics and electronics to pets and services. This video channel now puts a ‘face’ on the retailer, which in turn creates more consumer trust in times of anxiety. This helped Chinese retailers to swiftly enhance consumer loyalty.
  2. More Loyal: As the crisis has made the world more social, retailers in China have started to take better care of their customers by creating many private WeChat (like WhatsApp) groups to give members a feeling of exclusiveness. The whole idea is to increase the sense of belonging to a (local) community. Retail players and brands trained their employees on how to set up private WeChat groups and do live streaming. Besides online promotions to keep sales going, they have learned to offer product advice and keep customers engaged through interactive mini-games. This approach kick-started sales in March and is now being used as a loyalty and customer service tool. The beauty brand Perfect Diary took this to the next level by creating its own virtual influencers to moderate its WeChat fan groups to dispense personalized beauty advice on how to apply make-up. The much-appreciated consumer loyalty in the post-corona era is turning retailers in China into educators and personal coaches.

 

Pieter De Vuyst, business director at InSites Consulting

The lockdown has challenged consumers, yet at the same time highlighted their creativity and mental flexibility. While we constantly hear messages about ‘the new normal’ post-corona situation, reality shows the crisis has not only disrupted but also accelerated existing consumer trends. Retailers that embrace this will rebound faster and be more successful in the long run.

Having a service mindset with a human touch will be more important than ever. While at first fear and anxiety were the dominant feelings, our need to #staypositive and our longing for interaction and contact soon took over. Customer-intimate retailers will excel. Even a discount store like Flying Tiger made emotion and consumer connection essential elements in the reopening strategy of its Danish stores.

Our research of the past few weeks showed that consumers are taking the time to reevaluate themselves. DIY, local craftsmanship, conscious consumption, self-sustainment, etc. are niche habits being discovered by a larger group. People have supported their local stores and will continue to do so. Retailers should translate the community feeling into smart partnerships. Mother’s Day triggers lots of such local initiatives, and this may set the tone of for the coming years.

Lastly, the crisis gave confidence that all retailers can rapidly innovate and consumers can rapidly adopt. Self-serve retailing, cashless payments, touchless delivery, scheduled shopping, etc. have become the new standard in no time. For retailers, many of these actions hold huge potential for efficiency gains while leaving room to focus on customer experience at the same time.

The reopening of stores in the short term will put pressure on many retailers, thought the risk lies in focusing on safety only. There has been no better time to structurally rethink our retail models and experiment on the shopping floor.

 

Annette Franz, founder of CX Journey, Customer Experience author, consultant, speaker

One message that brands are hearing loud and clear – finally – is that business is about the people. The new post-pandemic normal must be that people – employees and customers – are at the core of the business. They always have been, but brands must embrace that realization and reality! What will they need to do to ensure that the shopping experience is a pleasant one for customers? They must continue to understand customers and their needs, expectations, pain points, problems to solve, and jobs to be done. That understanding will guide all of the decisions with regard to how to design and deliver the experience and how they must interact and transact with customers. Importantly, they will need to provide employees with the tools, the training, the resources, and the policies and processes to serve customers the way they want to be served and to address the needs and concerns of their customers.