Anyone watching retail seemed to think it would be the internet that destroyed the brick-and-mortar store—and it certainly tried. Over the past few years however, retail has been in a bit of an evolutionary renaissance, maybe even a liberation, and ironically, it’s owed to the internet—and the technology that came as a result.
For the first time in the history of retail, technology, architecture, visual merchandising, and marketing came together in balance to create a holistic experience from web to brick and mortar, and put the customer at the center. The best mandate to come as a result of the digital channel was to repurpose the brick-and-mortar store as something else, something more. The culmination of all of those energies? Willy Wonka’s factory, the moment when the product became equal or lesser in value than the experience itself. We were so very close. And then COVID-19 came along and was like, “hold my beer.”
We will not be the same when this is all over. Businesses will close. People are losing jobs. And we’re all going to have adapt to a new reality. We can either embrace the change or be crushed by it. Commerce will continue in some form. People will come out of their homes again. But our values will have changed. Our lifestyles and behaviors will have changed. The entire landscape for retailers and consumers alike will be changed. However, there are a few things that might help ease this transformation.
Adaptation is a good thing. It is one of the few things unique to humanity and we are already doing it. Restaurants are changing or focusing their models to support serving customers via drive-thru or more delivery methods. There are also advantages specific to small business: It’s easier for them to adapt than a larger more established business model. It’s easier to feel a personal connection to something small than it is large, so there is opportunity and hopefulness to be had.
Larger companies like Nike and Gap are embracing change by supporting the healthcare industry—retrofitting factories to make masks for healthcare workers. It’s also a great way to reassert the connection between the consumer and brand in a value-based way. Actions, not ads, will be very important going forward, because of how lives will be impacted and changed by the pandemic.
Building for flexibility is the cornerstone. Retailers, agencies, and even the physical retail space itself should assume that change is inevitable. And as we’re learning right now, it comes fast and without warning, so being able to work quickly and react to those changes will be key. Larger teams of specialties working in isolation will struggle. Instead, teams made up of specialists from all channels working from start to finish on a single project is nimble. It can move and adapt to the customer with more ease.
Similarly, the store itself should be built for flexibility. Being able to move product, scale up or down, and change displays and messaging quickly will be key. Experiences, once had, often lose their shine, so being able to offer something different and fresh without an astronomical investment of time and labor will be helpful in maintaining a connection with the customer—at their pace, not the business's.
The space should be a working experiment, built to learn more than to sell—a case study in understanding the customer. A way to provoke, disrupt, watch and learn from it all, while at the same time providing an experience worth leaving the house for. It will require some risk, and there will be mistakes. But the idea is that with a flexible team curating the entire experience from beginning to end, the mistakes can be turned into learnings and implemented at a much faster pace.
Two major conversations around scale and personalization were already starting to take place before the pandemic. The resurgence of the “neighborhood store” was already happening. It’s no secret that malls and huge department stores are struggling and have been for some time now. The sheer investment in space, and the restrictions on the lease make for a rigid, problematic model with few options in terms of flexibility. And using technology in a productive way is hugely cost prohibitive on a huge scale. It’s not so much with smaller stores. You could argue that activating more smaller stores doesn’t offset the cost of less large stores. But in the data game, a smaller, more focused sample will yield more specific results much faster than a large sample. Using technology and data to understand your customer is priceless. Being able to understand and offer the right experience and product is priceless. And being able to do so at the pace at which customers change is the entire ball game. As we begin to move forward, we’ll have to work with the significant setback of adjusting and revising the data of customer behavior, which may actually provide an advantage to the smaller retailers and independent stores.
This is a hard time. The likes of which most of us have never seen before, and it’s hard to find a silver lining. But, it’s also an extremely important time. A time to look back and reflect on the good, bad and what we’ve learned. A time to adapt and evolve while no one’s watching. And a time to prepare for what’s to come. In a lot of ways, it is the most important time. Change is hard and even harder when it’s forced upon you. The uncertainty of it all makes us apprehensive about committing to a future of unknowns. But we will emerge from this. We will leave our houses again. And when we do, we will be looking to reestablish relationships, and make new ones. So, use this time constructively. Be bold, be brave, be thoughtful. And be prepared.
(An)drew Jasperse is a Senior Designer at WONGDOODY, the global experience and design platform for Infosys. The creative firm and human experience company is internationally recognized for branding, retail, and consumer insights.