Though a number of states have now allowed retail stores to re-open, many consumers are still nervous about returning to in-person shopping—at least in the way it used to be. Crowded stores and long check-out lines, meandering aisle by aisle, touching each product: habits that once seemed normal are now imbued with added risk. In these anxious times, in-store shopping has to be as efficient as possible. Health and cleanliness protocols are more than just necessary precautions; they’re also retailers’ best marketing tools right now. Simply put: if you want to get people back into your store, you first have to reassure them that it will be safe for them to do so.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has altered day-to-day life significantly. In some ways, it has required people to be more diligent about planning. The “Leaving The House Check-List” has expanded from “Keys? Phone? Wallet?” to include “Keys? Phone? Wallet? Mask? Gloves? Hand sanitizer?” This kind of consideration has extended to consumer shopping habits as well. In order to avoid crowds, people have become more thoughtful about what time of day they shop. And they want to know in advance what to expect when they arrive in a public space.
According to Denise Lee Yohn at the Harvard Business Review, the recommended health-and-safety regulations constitute a “new baseline” upon which all retail spaces must operate to survive. She explained: “This includes mask wearing, ensuring physical distancing, and controlling the number of employees and customers in stores, instituting contactless transactions, improving speed of service, and introducing more self-service options.”
The latest data on consumer behavior has revealed a true shift away from normal shopping habits. According to data from McKinsey, “73% of consumers are not comfortable going back to ‘regular’ out-of-home activities. Most consumers are waiting for milestones beyond governments lifting restrictions—they are waiting for medical authorities to voice their approval, safety measures to be put in place, and a vaccine and/or treatments to be developed.”
A survey of 2,000 consumers from Wunderman Thompson Commerce found that “online purchasing accounted for 62% of all shopping during lockdown, compared to 43% before.” This shift is, in part, due to anxiety about the virus—as 48% of respondents said they were scared of visiting stores right now.
As this fear persists—and more people continue to adapt to buying online—it will be even harder for retailers to convince consumers to return to in-store shopping. And while not everyone is experiencing the same degree of worry, it’s important for retailers to be able to accommodate the comfort level of anyone who does walk in their door.
Some shoppers may feel fine to peruse the store leisurely, if everyone is wearing a mask—while others may want to get in and out as quickly as they can, no matter what. By clearly communicating your health and safety protocols through a variety of marketing, advertising and merchandising avenues, retailers will be able to connect with a wider net of consumers.
The retailers who do not will likely have a more difficult time retaining their customer base—as the pandemic has also complicated the normal rules of brand loyalty. According to McKinsey, “more than 75% of consumers have experimented with a different shopping behavior during the crisis, including trying new brands and places to shop. Of the consumers who switched stores or brands, availability, convenience and value were the main drivers.”
For retailers looking to strengthen their relationships with their customers, it’s imperative that they make a significant investment in health and safety measures. “Looking toward reopening, there is a renewed focus on health and expectation that companies “care” about consumers,” McKinsey’s research revealed. “Consumers are actively looking for safety measures when deciding where to shop in-store, such as enhanced cleaning, masks and barriers.”
If a customer’s “go-to” store doesn’t feel like a safe environment, they’re more likely to simply pick another one right now—one that clearly offers better social distancing protocol, or more efficient curb-side pick-up, or a robust online experience.
While in some ways this is a totally unparalleled set of challenges, many retailers may be more prepared for this type of problem-solving than they think. When you think about it, this conversation around health and safety is not all that different from the questions about the “in-store shopping experience” that the industry has been contemplating for years. Even before the pandemic hit, brick-and-mortar retailers had been struggling with low foot traffic. Pre-COVID, many of the proposed solutions to this problem involved physical events—reasons for consumers to gather and interact in your space. While new safety regulations make these experiences less viable, that doesn’t mean that conversation ends there.
Rather, we must rethink what we mean by an experience. An appointment-only business model is a type of experience, one that creates a more luxury feel—while minimizing virus risk by limiting the number of people in the store at once. A live-streamed talk or class or Q&A is an entirely different type of experience, one that bridges the gap between in-store and online.
It’s not just about prioritizing your customers’ health and safety either—it matters how you are treating your own staff as well. According to McKinsey, “One-fourth of consumers believe that a company’s treatment of its employees has increased in importance as a buying criterion since the crisis started. Companies’ actions in this time, especially toward their consumers and employees, will be remembered for a long time and can lead to goodwill.”
Here’s are a few small ways you can clearly communicate to customers how your store is operating and what steps you are taking to keep both shoppers and staff safe:
A Quick E-Blast To Your Customer List
Make sure your message is brief—people are still exhausted over the previous series of COVID response messages. Ideally, a clear and straightforward checklist of what you’re doing in your store is all you need. Consider using “What To Expect Next Time You Visit Us” or something similar as a subject line so recipients know exactly what it’s about.
Update Your Website And Google Listing + Talk About It On Social Channels
Try to reach as many people as possible! Share the same checklist as the e-blast across your website and social channels. Remember, clarity is important here; if you can make it an infographic, do! Make sure your hours are correct and indicate if you are offering specific hours for the elderly, are operating appointment-only or offering other appointment options.
Put Up An Easy-To-Read Sign On Your Door
Don’t make it too small! Make sure someone who stumbles upon your location on a walk will know what to expect before they open the door.
Use Consistent Messaging Across ALL Platforms
Earlier on during the crisis, we wrote even more in-depth article about tasteful ways to engage with consumers during this particular crisis. It’s a great resource as you continue to work to be of value to shoppers while also keeping them safe.
As we continue to navigate the difficulties of this moment, clearly affirming your commitment to the health and safety for your employees and customers is an essential marketing tool for all retailers.
This story originally appeared in eNews. Click here to get Sleep Retailer eNews delivered straight to your inbox.