How Retail Environments are Changing in the Face of COVID-19
The U.S. retail industry was already facing considerable challenges in Spring 2020. And then COVID hit, and things got even more dicey and complicated.
The early days of the pandemic pushed even more retailers out of business. However, it also forced those who remained to face new demands to survive. This has included everything from implementing new cleaning measures to introducing no-contact check-outs and information kiosks. Other actions to adjust to the new normal have included developing new shopping experiences in the face of social distancing and dealing with smaller inventories brought on a strained supply chain.
Here’s how the retail industry has changed because of the continuing pandemic and its steps to tackle the new burdens.
Issues Faced By the Retail Industry
Few at the beginning of the new decade would have guessed we’d be dealing with a worldwide pandemic that has now stretched on for nearly two years. Brick and mortar stores had long been forced to deal with online shopping. In the early days of COVID, those same retailers have had to pivot and try to drum up business online themselves or do nothing and hope they would survive the lockdowns that physically closed their stores.
Though most lockdowns are history, the many changes brought to the retail landscape because of COVID are no longer considered temporary fixes but rather a new way of life.
Cleaning and More Cleaning
Before COVID, retailers relied on crews working in the off-hours to clean public spaces. Today, it seems every retail employee is part of the cleaning process that’s now being done throughout the day and often with customers in the stores.
Employees are also faced with the prospect of having to wear masks throughout the day – even in situations when shoppers do not. The mask-wearing can quickly bring down morale and cause some to rethink their commitment to working in a retail environment.
Doing Less With More
Though more are finally rejoining the workforce post-lockdowns, retailers and other businesses still find it challenging to hire new employees or have others return. This means longer hours for those who have and increased wages because of rising inflation. In some cases, this combination has forced retailers to adjust shopping hours, perhaps closing some stores on different days of the week.
Indirectly, smaller workforces worldwide have also led to supply shortages that keep inventories lower throughout the industry.
How Retail Businesses Can Cope With Changes Caused By COVID-19
There are various ways retailers are coping with changes brought on by the pandemic, including the following.
Taking a Hands-Off Approach
Though more are finally rejoining the workforce post-lockdowns, retailers and other businesses still find it challenging to
Grocery stores were among the first retailers to embrace cashier-less checkouts. COVID has forced other retailers to take similar approaches to provide no-contact situations between employees and customers and to cope with personnel shortages.
With self-checkouts becoming the norm, companies have had to explore no-touch payment technology that’s changing point-of-sale situations. For example, some companies are relying on tablets, phones, and wearable devices to make it quicker for customers to purchase a product or receive a service. Luckily, companies like Mason offer modular point-of-sale solutions that are easy to customize to match a retailers’ needs.
Besides self-checkouts, information kiosks are becoming very popular in some retail situations. These make it possible for in-store customers to perform different tasks that once involved one-on-one communication with a store employee. In addition, these kiosks are programmable to provide research and selection, purchasing, and returning/exchanging.
Of these new locations, Deloitte perhaps says it best, “be digital first, even in-store.”
Rethinking the Store Experience
In-person shopping will never be a force it once was. However, in some respects, the pandemic might have saved the practice since it has forced retailers to recalculate the entire shopping experience. From making current showrooms more efficient to opening new ones when necessary, these changes give people fresh reasons to ditch the internet for some purchases.
Saying the pandemic is “rewriting the rules of retail,” Harvard Business Review explains how some companies like Restoration Hardware and Bass Pro Shops are making in-store experiences even more “extraordinary.” In doing so, they give folks compelling reasons to justify “their exposure to health risks and overcomes the inertia of the behaviors they adopted during the shutdown.”
Less is More
Finally, there’s the supply issue that grew out of the continuing pandemic. For some, having fewer goods to sell hasn’t necessarily been bad. Recently, the Wall Street Journal said the situation has forced department stores and specialty chains to rein in discounts and charge more. In doing so, they’re experiencing higher profits.
As Macy CEO Jeff Gennette notes, “We were carrying too much inventory for years. Through the pandemic, our opportunity to work through our stock and get in line with demand is a benefit we’ll hold on to going forward.”
How COVID-19 Will Continue to Impact the Retail Industry
It wasn’t that long ago when most thought vaccinations would rid the world of COVID. But, unfortunately, pesky COVID strains like Delta, and more recently, Omicron have shown more will need to be done by health care professionals and the public to get us anyone close to where we were when 2020 began.
In the meantime, retailers should use this time to increase their digital tools to attract visitors and keep them happen. First, this means continuing to implement fun, unique ways to convince them to visit in the first place. Second, companies must continue to make it even easier for shoppers to perform tasks such as buying and returning without actual human interaction in the stores.
Finally, to combat continued labor shortages, retailers might have no choice but to increase wages and benefits and provide better scheduling and time off flexibility. Otherwise, you’ll lose would-be employees to competitors.
These strange times have forced retailers to think outside the box again to keep things moving in the right direction. In the short term, COVID led to unexpected shutdowns, then stop-and-go openings. Today, companies have accepted the new reality and are positioned to conquer the challenges this virus continues to throw at every one of us.