In the media

How bricks-and-mortar retail can bounce back post-pandemic

Rhea Patten

By Rhea Patten

Grit Daily

15 June 2021

This article first appeared on Grit Daily

Ten years of progress in three months. Most businesses would do anything for that type of growth. But what does it mean when that type of change occurs in one industry and across multiple product or service segments? 

Ecommerce was catapulted by COVID-19 due to increased demand. In fact, 52% of adult consumers reported shopping online more after the pandemic hit. The result was that brands in certain sectors responded by doubling-down on their online business and contracting their bricks-and-mortar retail footprints. 

However, as millions of shots go into the arms of Americans daily, a lingering question remains. Are consumers missing a physical connection with their favorite brands and stores? And will this be key to a resurgence of bricks-and-mortar retail?

This question alone makes the case for the long-term potential of bricks-and-mortar retail stores and creates opportunities as companies look to retool their approach to drive growth.  

Simply, the pronouncement of commercial real estate’s demise is defeatist. Instead, what is needed is a clever reinvention to bring shoppers back in-store. Leveraging data, doubling down on experiential, personalized shopping experiences, and embracing and creating equality via a multichannel strategy is key. 

Making data work for brands and consumers

Online searches, purchase history and personal preferences provide powerful data. However, it is not about the amount of data a company has, but what they do with it that counts.

These pieces of information can be nuggets of gold. From consumer targeting to product awareness to ongoing engagement after purchase, the end-to-end possibilities are numerous.  For example, Nordstrom has been lauded for giving suggestions with amazing accuracy, something that allows for a quick sale and a more personalized shopper experience.

One way to bring shoppers back in-store is to arm retail associates and personal shoppers with data so they can be more effective advisors. This creates a one-to-one connection and allows for a personal approach not established through an algorithm.

Providing customer-facing employees access to this data emphasizes an enhanced experience, thus fostering better brand loyalty.

Experience is king

Elevating retail touchpoints is the future. The shopping experience is not a one-size-fits-all approach, with varied interests, needs and now, varied comfort levels in terms of interpersonal interaction. On that front, there’s hope on the horizon, as a new study from Nielsen surveying Americans found that the majority (61%) of consumers are “ready to go” with returning to normal, pre-pandemic behavior. That contrasts with 34% who were ready for such a return in April of last year.

This pent-up demand brings new opportunities for retailers to drive in-store engagement. Those who will find success will lean into things that cultivate multi-sensory and multi-channel engagement.

Take Lululemon for example, which leverages in-person experiences to make the brand come to life. They have been known to curate small yoga or mindfulness events which help consumers paint the picture of how to incorporate Lululemon apparel into their daily lives while also building brand loyalty.

With this embrace, retailers must also consider several challenges in curating experiences that are meaningful for consumers. For example, brands must avoid getting lost in the novelty of pop-ups or out-there activations – which can be highly successful in generating buzz around a launch or new offering – and consider how will these same consumers interact with the brand on a day-to-day basis once the pop-up is gone. To this end, practicality should not be overlooked. There’s power in optionality, especially today where the expectation is that there are online, drive-up and in-store offerings.

Another retail model allowing for greater experiential flexibility is the showroom. Taking the example of the Samsung Experience Store, the company created a hybrid experience combining the bricks-and-mortar retail store experience to touch and try the products with in-store tech support, with an ecommerce purchasing model. Moving forward, retailers will need to find the right balance of offering a range of mediums to shop while making sure the physical element remains central to continue realizing the ROI of physical space.

The omnichannel shopping experience of the future

The ideal way to shop and engage with brands should be guided by the ability to dip in and out, without the experience feeling disjointed. For as many positives as in-store shopping brings – things like instant gratification and a chance to engage in-person with the brand and products – retailers must also take advantage of e-commerce’s potential.

For a brand or company that offers in-store and online shopping, these mediums should never be siloed or seen as competitors. They are complementary tools, and this is where omnichannel strategy comes into play. Brands should not be measuring these channels against each other because each has different strengths and weaknesses. Brands and retailers need to be online, on social, in-person and data underpins all of this.

A household name recognized for their engaging omnichannel presence is Ikea, where shoppers can start by browsing online, create their shopping list, see which isle to find the product in and head to a store where associates can help, people can curate and customize their products, and consumers can immerse themselves in the styled vignettes. Ultimately, the experience is wrapped with a nice bow as shoppers take something home that day.

Now and into the future, retailers and brands need to take what’s beautiful about physical places and spaces and make that magical again. The offering in a physical brick and mortar store should be something shoppers cannot get anywhere else. Brands have an opportunity to make the retail experience more customized and personal, whether this includes different ways to interact with brands, seasonal products available in-store, the chance to “try before buy” and more.

With a lot still to be sorted, one thing is for certain; emotion comes from engaging the senses and it is this reason there will always be a place for physical retail. The ways in which this is interpreted will be exciting to watch.

Rhea Patten is a personalization and connected experiences expert at PA Consulting

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