Redefining the retail experience

Paul Laville, managing director, T21T21 Group’s Paul Laville asks, what is the ‘new normal’ in retail, how have stores adapted so far since being allowed to reopen, and what is the effect on the customer experience?

I said at the start of lockdown that when this pandemic was all over, the word ‘normal’ would have to be redefined: shopping behaviours and working patterns would change, and they have; how we interact with other people would change, and it has.

A ‘new normal’ is rapidly taking the place of the old and whilst some of those changes were already underway, the sheer acceleration of necessary change has forced many businesses to adopt not only new internal structures and practices but new ways of thinking too, particularly in regards to customer experience.

At the height of lockdown that experience was relatively restrictive and remote. Retailers hastily upgraded their websites and phonelines and many kept a skeleton crew in place to manage deliveries and click and collect services, while the rest of the staff were furloughed.

Supermarkets and pharmacies remained open and trialled social distancing measures on the shop floor, marking out two-metre squares and one-way systems with tape. They experimented with screens, face coverings and sanitiser stations and worked out the best ways to manage customer traffic queues inside and outside their stores. Given how well most of them managed this, it was disappointing to read in the news that when “non-essential” retailers were finally able to reopen to the public on 15 June, many of them were unable to learn from the supermarkets.

Retra’s Deputy CEO, Matthew Sheldrake, wrote about a ‘melee’ in June when he went shopping in his hometown and saw large retailers showing “no regard for health and safety” inside or outside their stores. In the same report, he mentioned that smaller independents actually excelled where the larger stores failed, and from the conversations I’ve had with independents in the last few weeks, many do seem to be doing far more than their larger counterparts to provide a safer shopping environment for their customers.

Of course, not every customer will feel entirely safe when visiting stores, so there can be no let- up in the attention to online and telephone sales and click and collect. The experience customers have whilst using these methods to buy from you still has to be the best it can be.

Many people have found their mental health challenged over the last few months, so it’s the responsibility of shop staff to reassure customers who do venture out and convince them that they are in safe hands, to transmit confidence and security maybe even with exaggerated fervour. I’ve seen some very anxious souls wearing face masks hovering around the washing machines and TVs afraid to touch anything, so a confident manner, reassuring tone and open body language from staff can go a long way.

Talking of body language, keeping the distance between yourself and a customer can feel strange and unnatural when you’re used to being much closer, and if you’re using PPE then how do you smile and reassure people from the other side of a mask? In a world where retailers have been looking to get closer to their customers, suddenly having visors, screens and a minimum distance thrust upon us would seem to undo all that great work. However, I’d argue that it doesn’t take much for those barriers to be rendered invisible when you’re in conversation and developing a good rapport with customers. It’s all in the voice, the eyes and what you do with your hands – making them as expressive as you possibly can.

To my mind this is the foundation of ‘the new normal’, at least until COVID restrictions lift further. It’s a customer experience which places personal safety and mental reassurance above all else. Implemented well this can give independents an advantage to capitalise on, showing that they really do support the community and that the tills aren’t ringing at the expense of increased risk to health and wellbeing.