Brick-and-mortar stores across the country, from Nordstrom to REI, are reopening with limits on customer capacity. What this means is that as we approach the summer months, customers will be waiting outside in the unpredictable weather for their turn to shop. And waiting in heat and thunderstorms can test the mettle of even your most loyal customer.
So how can retailers invest in a more comfortable and convenient outside waiting experience? A great place to start is borrowing (and possibly improving upon) the queue solutions that were already used in the restaurant and theme park industries pre-COVID. These solutions can include moving the line totally into the virtual space and improving physical queues with both technology and infrastructure like seating and shade. Let’s explore how a brand could up your waiting game.
Creating Digital Queues
The near future of shopping may not look much different than waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. That is, if patron has not already made a reservation, they would give their name and phone number to the host, and the restaurant would then text them when their table was ready.
Retailers can take a leaf out of restaurants’ book and use a waitlist management software. Upon arrival at the store, customers can check in and then wait in the comfort of their own air-conditioned cars until the store notifies them that it is their turn to enter. Not only can this method help ensure better social distancing, but it also saves customers from having to wait outside in the elements.
Another method is to ask customers to make reservations to shop at a certain time, all before they even leave their home. Best Buy, for example, reopened stores only allowing customers to shop by appointment. Customers must preregister for a specific time via Best Buy’s website or app, and then they are matched with a sales representative who assists them when they come to the store. This goes a step further to avoid crowded parking lots and unhappy customers who arrive only to have to wait longer than anticipated.
Digitally Enhancing Physical Queues
If you do not have the capability or budget to move your outside queues into the virtual world, you can still create a more comfortable physical wait using technology. A big plus of tapping tech is the ability to entertain your customers during potentially long and challenging waits.
Think about offering free Wi-Fi access to your waiting customers. You will be amazed by how much happier people become when they realize they can watch viral videos and scroll through social media without using their own data.
A second way to entertain customers with technology is to use digital signage, a.k.a. outdoor TVs. Using TVs in lines and waiting rooms is common practice already in restaurants, doctor’s offices and theme parks. Consider showing a movie, sporting event (replays for now), or even a slide show of trivia questions or odd facts to keep customers entertained.
A savvy retailer can also slip in additional information about their store’s current specials or show entertaining company commercials – a win/win. Consider a random approach using technology and geofencing to offer shopping discounts via a digital coupon for those waiting in line. This can be done based on factors such as wait time or a planned frequency, all to deliver an emotional connection to the shopper.
On the operations front, if a store is limiting the number of people allowed inside, it follows that they will need an employee manning the doors and keeping a headcount of customers already shopping. However, depending on your budget and penchant for testing out new technology, it might also be worth looking into automated door management systems that count shoppers and communicate with customers when there is room to enter.
Additionally, remember to analyze the store’s foot traffic data to predict when spikes or lulls, or even changes in customer age, gender, etc., may occur. This will help retailers predict everything from how many staff need to be devoted to queue control and how the queue may need to be updated to cater to certain groups. Of course, foot traffic in the world of COVID-19 is going to look different than last year, so it is important to start tracking and analyzing current foot traffic immediately.
Physically enhancing queues
The Weather Company predicts a hotter-than-average summer for the lower 48 states, especially by August. Now, try to picture retail customers waiting in 80- and 90-degree sunny weather on hot cement or asphalt without shade or seating. It is not a pretty picture and conjures up images of understandably upset customers complaining online and to friends and families about the trial they had to endure just to do a bit of shopping. To be clear, the in-store customer experience should be amped up and viewed as well worth enduring the queuing wait.
But a little care on the store’s part can go a long way.
Think about what makes waiting for a theme park ride in the middle of summer bearable. An immediate idea that comes to mind is shade, whether artificially created or cast by the surrounding vegetation. Consider placing UV-blocking pop-up tents along your queues. While stores will need to ensure that the tents are secure and will not blow away, this is an easy and affordable way to provide customers with relief from the sun. Another way to keep customers cool is by providing complementary, cold bottled water.
Prioritizing Special Groups
And last, but certainly not least, an important way to provide a better customer experience is to give priority to special groups who will find it the most difficult to wait outside on their feet, including senior citizens, differently abled shoppers and people shopping with children. Some stores, of course, like grocery stores, already offer special shopping hours for seniors. But during regular hours, retailers need to think about also offering regularly sanitized seating for these groups and giving them front-of-the-line privileges.
Remember, while managing outdoor queues can be an added responsibility to worry about, it can also be an opportunity for your company to provide a stellar customer experience. The current crisis will pass eventually, and customers will remember the experience you provide for years to come.
Ron Lutz is chief retail officer of Miller Zell. Prior to joining Miller, Lutz was a VP at Lowe’s Home Improvement, where he led multi-channel testing and commercialization experience production and deployment teams. He was with the company for over 13 years, beginning as a director then advancing through several VP level roles which focused on in-store customer experience.