From pre-visit planning to browsing, discovery, and transactions, shopper preferences and concerns have been reshaped by the events of 2020. Here are 10 strategies retailers are leveraging to overhaul the in-store experience and support future brand success

In only a matter of weeks, the world as we knew it changed dramatically—but the current crisis has in many ways only accelerated retail trends that were already growing over the last few years: More shopping being done online and through apps, an expansion of delivery and in-store pick-up options, and a greater emphasis on technology at all levels of enterprise to boost efficiency and customer satisfaction.

To provide both immediate solutions and design with long-term impact in mind, retailers are rethinking their practices and policies, accelerating the deployment of mobile and in-store technology, and offering new services to protect their customers and employees, while delivering a great shopping experience.

In an effort to empower customers in the midst of uncertainty, retailers are providing tools that give them greater control over how they shop in-store. Below, we explore 10 ways retailers are leveraging technology and innovation to optimize the store experience at all points along the customer journey, drawn from PSFK’s Redesigned Store Experience Debrief—a deep dive guide to help retailers refit, reformat and reprogram their physical stores.    

Real-Time Inventory Checking – To inspire confidence that a store visit is worth the time and  effort, retailers are implementing live inventory tracking tools. By providing accurate, local product location, stores are building consumer trust. Shop in Place Chicago is one such example, offering neighborhood directories of Chicago businesses that offer essentials like food and household items, encouraging Chicagoans to buy hyper-local and help support small businesses facing challenges during COVID-19.

Setting Expectations – To help shoppers better understand what to expect from their store visit, retailers can provide customers with visual tools and digital reenactments of new in-store policies. Luxury department store Nordstrom has released a video for customers and employees, which details what to expect when the retailer reopens. Updated policies include barring entrances and the number of shoppers in-store, frequent sanitation of high-touch surfaces like registers and changing rooms, and providing free face masks to promote a safe in-store environment.

On Route Preparation – Once a shopper has made the choice to go out, retailers can provide even more support on the way to the store, using map platforms and mobile apps to help customers access real-time updates regarding shopping hours, pickup availability, and more. Retail warehouse Sam’s Club offers an in-car shopping concierge for older and other at-risk shoppers. Members can park in reserved spots where they are greeted by an employee who will take their shopping order via mobile device. Sam’s Club employees then shop the order in-store and return to the parking spot with the goods, have the customer pay and place the orders in the members’ trunks.

Traffic Flow – Retailers are designing the in-store experience with preventative measures in mind, rethinking store flow from the entrance to checkout, and leveraging in-store technology to limit capacity and uphold physical distancing measures. Dutch design firm Shift Architecture Urbanism built a social distancing solution for smaller, local open air markets: a 16-square grid, which is delineated on the ground of the location with tape and barriers, as well as a sectioned-off queue area that is marked for required standing distance between customers.

Virtual Associates – By offering consumers the ability to virtually connect with local, in-store associates via text and video, or to use immersive virtual showrooms to try on product, retailers can deliver in-the-moment expertise and advice remotely. French apparel brand A.P.C. provides its shoppers with  virtual appointments, reserved online and staffed by a guide who takes them through the new merchandise personally. Customers can buy items during these walk-throughs, and the A.P.C. team will ship direct.

Voice-Activated Directions – Another way to educate shoppers on how to safely navigate stores is by adopting voice-activated technology via personal devices, kiosks and robotics. German supermarket chain Edeka introduced a voice-intelligent robot called Pepper, which instructs customers on how to follow social-distance protocol, as well as provides updates on in-store practices being observed.

Augmented Merchandising – To further reduce points of contact, AI-powered apps allow customers to easily access product information and details via their own device. Swiss barcode scanning platform Scandit has created an AR-enabled mobile experience that lets shoppers select dietary preferences and then scan barcodes on products to check for their allergies or restrictions. Displaying in augmented reality, this capability allow shoppers to learn about individual items without having to touch them.

Payment-Enabled Goods – Beyond using apps, branded merchandise and consumer wearable devices are being augmented to support contactless transactions via embedded payment chips and software. At select Starbucks Japan locations, in-store payment tech allows for contactless transactions leveraging branded pens, handbags, and phone cases, all linked to customers' digital wallets. Guests are able to tap each item on the payment terminal to check out.

Trunk Delivery – Retailers are also modifying fulfillment practices to comply with social distancing, coordinating with consumers to fulfill digital purchases at the curb by providing in-app alerts once orders are ready, ongoing updates, and guidance as they arrive on-site, as well as a final contactless handoff to their vehicle’s trunk. Craft store retailer Michaels and postal delivery company UPS are partnering on a curbside service, allowing customers to have their packages shipped directly to one of 800 UPS Access Points recently opened at Michaels stores. Upon arrival, an associate will locate the customer’s package and place it directly into the trunk of their car.

Optimizing For Employees – With employees now assuming greater risk as part of their day-to-day jobs, companies are taking steps to create the safest environment possible, from providing daily testing and protections to designing socially-distanced workspaces. Tech company Rombit adapted its existing digital bracelet Romware One, which helps direct workplace logistics, to monitor social distancing as well as provide contact tracing capabilities, alerting employees when they come closer than six feet using vibration.

These 10 trends showcase the innovative tech and strategies retailers are leveraging in order to provide best-in-class service to customers as a changed industry begins to re-open. For even more insights into how retailers are rebuilding, check out PSFK's deep dive research report, The (Re)designed Store Experience Debrief.