Readjustment: The Role of Digital Tools In Post-Lockdown Stores
Across the country, retailers are weeks deep into the progress and retreat of post lockdown re-openings. After months’ long shutdowns, questions abound about the best way for businesses preparing to bring back not just their own workers but customers.
Different states have their own guidelines, which at times conflict with the last criteria coming from the federal government or its public health organizations. For brick-and-mortar retail, the way through these confusing times is going to be led by a combination of physical and digital changes to how the stores themselves operate — from how shoppers enter their doors to why they are even there.
In the pre-COVID past, stores had a clear function: to allow shoppers to experience a product and imagine where it would fit on their bodies or in their lives – and to stumble upon other products they didn’t even know they needed, until they did. From apparel to furniture, brick-and-mortar shares a common goal. Now, however, those very same experiential forays have become problematic and rife with potential danger. If stores can no longer offer tangible participation in the buying process, what are they for? And how can stores adapt to help shoppers explore and experience in a safer way?
Stores, and their owners, managers, and staff, need to be creative as we collectively move toward our “new normal.” Operators will need to rethink business models, purposes, and spaces, and any successful solution must take into account not just one isolated part of the picture, e.g. the physical store, but the whole ecosystem — from the supply chain to the individual consumer to the real estate manager to shoppers and their individual micro-universes. The answer to navigating this uncharted territory is a combination of physical and digital controls to manage the flow and interactions of personnel.
On the physical side, the first category is non-technical has been well charted elsewhere, so we won’t dwell too long on it. But it includes new signage, with empathetic messages to remember mask usage or passive markings of where to stand to maintain proper distancing.
In many cases, these maneuvers must expand outside the traditional retail space to the sidewalk, shopping center, or other public surrounding areas, to ensure the safe flow and measure of foot traffic into the store without creating a crowd outside, either.
DIGITAL STORE TOOLS
On the technological side, retailers and property owners/managers should consider adopting digital tools that allow:
- Employees, visitors, and contractors to report symptoms through a private, secure interface
- Businesses to notify and alert – in real time – their employees, visitors, and contractors of infection risks and business hours
- Sharing of visitor data and shared space controls between property managers and tenant organizations, while protecting individual privacy rights
- Monitoring of people’s health and guiding them in an empathetic fashion
But these digital solutions go beyond those strictly surrounding the products. Information technology can also play a crucial role in keeping everyone safe as the country increasingly reopens.
Tools like mobile apps or other forms of self-reporting allow information to be gathered and disseminated in real time. These platforms can track and analyze anonymous, aggregated information about employees, visitors, and other entrants, allowing users to self-report or receive information about new symptoms or possible exposures in shared spaces.
This data can then help inform “hot spots” and suggest next steps to help prevent further spread and to mitigate liability concerns. Of course, health data is subject to important privacy regulations, so these measures must be taken in consultation with third-party collectors and data protection experts on the back end.
On the front end, however, mobile apps hold enormous promise as a user-friendly way to allow both collection and dissemination of information, from COVID exposure to new store hours and schedule changes, in-store proximity warning notifications, and more.
The other category of new controls for retail in the age of COVID is potentially transformative in terms of creating digital experiences in physical stores. Here are just a few of the ways that stores can create new pathways for the in-store customer experience. While, for example, a furniture store could encase a sofa in plastic, ensure one user sits on it at a time, wipe it down after each use, or show disposable samples, the technology for experiencing that sofa digitally exists today.
Augmented reality interfaces can allow shoppers to have a rich virtual sense of that sofa, whether by choice of fabric, color, or how it might look in in their own living room.
Augmented reality not only prevents literal touch, but it also decentralizes the experience – shoppers no longer have to interact physically with that particular sofa, in that section of the store, in order to test it out, which allows more freedom for social distancing.
Similarly, augmented reality will play an important role in apparel stores, whose old model— whereby customers could pick up and try on items which, if not then purchased, would be returned to circulation on the sales floor — is for obvious reasons no longer workable. Remember walking young children through stores and getting them to not handle everything in sight by telling them you were in a “no-touch museum?” Well, COVID-19 makes the “no-touch museum” a reality.
While we have a long way to go, digital tools will help re-envision the in-store shopping experience while better enabling adherence to public health protocols without invading individual privacy rights.
Maulik Bhagat is a managing director at global consultancy AArete, where he leads the digital and data services practice. Bhrugu Pange is a managing director and leads AArete’s technology services group. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.