How can retailers reassure their customers that they’ll be able to have a safe shopping experience in-store this spring?

As non-essential shops opened their doors again, 12 April 2021 was a landmark moment for UK retailers. This isn’t the first time that industry has celebrated a physical reopening following months of national restrictions. However, according to the Government’s new roadmap, it could now mark the true rebirth of bricks and mortar retail as many hope the previously see-sawing restrictions are now coming to an end.

While the stay at home order has been lifted, the ongoing social and legal repercussions of Covid-19 are going to be long term. Many are excited to return to ‘normality’, but it’s important to consider the anxieties that people may have before they feel comfortable heading to a physical shop. In a recent Ipsos poll, the majority of respondents in 12 out of 14 major countries said that if businesses are allowed to reopen, they would still be nervous about leaving their homes.

Despite the advances in online shopping, retailers know that customers are drawn to in-store shopping for its social nature, as well as the storytelling and emotional experiences they can provide. Often, a shopping trip can mark a big moment, such as choosing decorations for a first home, finding a gift for a loved one or simply catching up with friends - something which in this climate, has huge importance.

When comparing the cautious retail reopening last summer to the well-received resumption last winter, this spring has huge ‘bounce back’ potential, supported by the added confidence of the speedy vaccination roll out. To succeed, retailers must deliver a safe, responsible environment for customers and staff, complying with industry and Government standards without compromising on service or those special moments.

Short-term investment for a long-term future

While lots of retailers, staff and customers are now well-versed with the required social distancing and queueing procedures, it’s important to not become complacent. Invest in tools that communicate safety practices and messaging effectively to instil confidence when visiting your store.

By now, every shop should have measures in place to provide a clean browsing and working environment. New Government guidelines published on 1 April have created additional considerations for retailers to ensure that store teams and customers are adhering to the appropriate measures. The additional information included new advice on operating fitting rooms safely, as well as ventilation and tests.

Failure to adhere to the latest guidelines could see consumer confidence dip at a time when stores need to create the most welcoming environment for shoppers. As retailers adapt to the latest guidance over the coming months, ensuring a specialist auditor - including our own at Ipsos - has checked that stores are meeting best practice, is a sensible measure to apply good governance in this space.

Social distancing and occupancy levels will continue to be a priority for the sector, both on the shop floor as well as warehouses and staff-only spaces, and it is vital retailers follow the guidance from the BRC and USDAW. Live occupancy counter technology can give management peace of mind that stores are operating within a safe threshold and enabling them to restrict entry if needed. These guidelines are likely to be in place for some time to come, so should not be seen as a short-term investment.

Developing an efficient and streamlined shopping experience will continue to become more important, building on the success of click-and-collect seen throughout lockdown. With click-and-collect services now allowed in-store, now is the time to consider using embedded technology to provide more information, such as QR codes or even motion detectors that can offer new and exciting experiences. Where previously high-touchpoint areas may have provided that ‘wow’ moment for shoppers, explore creative alternatives - such as touchless responsive bars - that entertain and reassure shoppers.

Emotional considerations for a ‘consumer confident’ journey

Many months have passed since shoppers were last able to browse in-store, and some particularly vulnerable customers could be stepping out for the first time in over a year. Ensuring every visitor feels safe and secure is always a key part of the shopping experience, but now there are new challenges to overcome to create a comfortable environment amid the uncertainty.

Our recent Ipsos Views publication focussed on the effects of wearing a face covering in-store. This has undoubtedly changed the way customer experiences are delivered. We wanted to explore how strong customer relationships could still be fostered.

Face perception is important for emotional recognition - this means that ‘serving with a smile’ is no longer enough for staff who want to create a welcoming experience. While research has found that emotions such as happiness were harder, though not impossible, to identify on people wearing a mask, anger was the least impacted in terms of perception. This is key for staff who need to identify unhappy customers, but also holds as a reminder that even if the face is hidden, employees need to remain professional, even when placed under additional stress.

While lots of retailers, staff and customers are now well-versed with the required social distancing and queueing procedures, it’s important to not become complacent.

Clear communication is key

Build upon any existing customer care training with new, clear policies on how customers should be treated and guidance for staff who interact with them. Other internal changes should include alerts and action taken for safety protocol infringements to protect your customers. To safeguard staff, develop direct safety alerts and procedures should any threatening behaviour occur such as resistance to following guidelines or putting other shoppers at risk. 

Direct your messaging and marketing in store and online to clearly communicate and reinforce your message of trust and social responsibility. If you’ve invested in auditing to showcase your compliance, or standards of occupancy and hygiene, display it somewhere that customers can see it. These steps can bolster a harmonious relationship with shoppers, reinforcing trust despite the reduced emotional connection.

In the US, government inspectors have recognised the impact of social distancing features which form part of retailers’ customer counting solutions. These tools not only help to keep shoppers safe, but can give individual stores the ability to manage occupancy, as well as enabling strategic decision making around store improvement.

Test-and-learn to success 

The physical shopping experience is always developing yet now, overarching cultural, emotional and regulatory shifts are set to elevate the status quo even higher. In an era of uncertainty, developing core industry standards is essential to move the sector forward.

Monitor and report on progress to build confidence, but don’t delay from adopting a test-and-learn approach that moves with the times and in rhythm with the customer. Be as transparent as possible in sharing results, identifying successes and where things need to be challenged.

With these steps, it’s possible to create and communicate a ‘consumer-confident’ experience that reflects responsible retailing in practice and provides reassurance to shoppers, your staff and the sector as a whole.

In an era of uncertainty, developing core industry standards is essential to move the sector forward.

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This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.