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What might be the impact of COVID-19 on customer preferences in retail?

  • December 11, 2020

Significant events usually alter long-established customer habits, which then become their default. The current pandemic is one such event that has created several changes in how consumers shop and might very well become the default for many of them post-pandemic as well. Though a number of these changes had stores moving in a similar direction prior to the pandemic on a trial basis or as a gradual adoption, changing customer needs and preferences has meant that these developments have been implemented by stores on a priority basis. 

6 feet please

The biggest worry for shoppers visiting retail stores this year has been the issue of distancing. A typical visit to the store usually meant interacting with many people, mainly employees at the store and fellow shoppers. The crowds being an annoyance in a store is something that would’ve been experienced by most people. But in a year in which it could be potentially deadly, it dissuaded shoppers when they perceived a shop to have too many people. It then involved having to plan on times when there were fewer people in a store to visit for their shopping or to do it through other means such as online. While there were innovations already being tried out previously, the need to reduce interaction between people on an immediate basis meant that seamless and contactless shopping started to be more widely adopted. 

Asking sales representatives and store employees about information in a store is an everyday shopping experience. But at a time when customers are wary of it, stores have put in place several methods for customers to get the information in a store by themselves. Some large retailers have apps to help locate the needed sections and products in the store so that customers can reach the aisles directly without having to wander around the store searching and wasting time in doing so. Others have smart shelves that display information about products on displays that give details about discounts and offers as well. While reducing the information clutter within the store, it also means that shoppers can get the particulars they need without having to talk to a representative.

Another crucial facet of shopping that has seen major changes is concerning payment in stores. Long lines at stores during peak hours and holiday seasons are a common aspect of shopping and one that is frustrating to people. Though the number of people in stores is fewer at the moment, standing in a queue or having to talk with cashiers while maintaining social distancing is a challenge. This concern among shoppers has meant that stores have started to prioritize cashless payments and other innovations in stores. From scanning products in an app which then adds it to the cart, to online payments within stores, to systems which recognize customers picking up a product and adding it to the cart and billing them accordingly, different stores have implemented a range of methods according to the needs of their customers. 

There are also changes in in-store shopping which have seen a transformation because of the current situation. Any shopping activity which involves having to physically sample or try on products has seen stores working to reassure customers through novel initiatives. Trying on beauty products is one area where technology has helped stores in offering the same experiences as before but without contact. Customers can see how a particular color of lipstick looks on them without the need to try it on, something that they do not want to do at the moment. The same goes for items of clothing as well. And this presents more opportunities in terms of trying on different colors of the same item, even ones which might not available at the moment and can be requested at the store. 

Conclusion

Retail stores have been forced by the pandemic to make changes to the way they offer their services to continue to stay relevant to shoppers. From offering omnichannel shopping to store pickup options, there have been numerous changes and evolutions in shopping in the span of only a few months this year. And a number of those look set to stay after the pandemic as well. Stores will also need to bring back shoppers by reducing pain points and providing a shopping experience that is engaging and innovative. 

But this year has also seen many stores struggle to stay in business as they were taken by surprise by an unforeseen event that severely impacted their sales and made it difficult for them to stay in business. For some, this was because they were stretched thin and didn’t have the buffer to weather the crisis. Could a scenario where businesses choose to set up shop during periods that is more relevant to them be a better format going forward for small businesses? Smaller stores might also lack the capabilities in gathering the data needed to make better business decisions.

Our sister company Pop Your Store provides the service where businesses only need to decide on the merchandise that they want to sell, and the level of services that they need from us and we take care of the rest. How that works is something we’ll be writing about next time.