BIG IDEAS Retail Isn't Dead
BIG IDEAS The Future is Now

Success Strategies for Reopening after COVID-19


The coronavirus has dropped brick-and-mortar retail into a deep crisis. Initial solutions can be derived from the current behavior of consumers. But even after the crisis, things won't continue as before: what trendsetting, innovative strategies are emerging already for retail in the post-corona era.

The current crisis and the preparation for the time after COVID-19 are totally unprecedented for retailers as well as for all other economic sectors. There are only a few points of reference from the past from which a promising approach can be derived. A cost reduction, enabled most easily with lower expenditures for communication and store experience, may seem obvious. In all likelihood, however, this approach will not lead to the desired success. The reason for this: Customers and their expectations have changed elementally. And that is exactly what all strategies and measures need to have as their aim now. After all, the coming weeks and the time right after COVID-19 will already determine which retailers will continue to be relevant and successful.


What does the status quo look like amid the corona crisis? After retailers were forced to close their doors, all those without systemic relevance have fallen into massive to existential hardship due to a lack of income. But the problem is twofold: 1. The lack of sales and 2. the sales drop of these retailers will result in a surplus of goods after the crisis, which will bring on lower profit margins due to cuts and discounts. 

Consumers: What Remains Is Fear


The most important question for retailers now is how consumers will behave right after total lockdown has ended since their lives will be returning to somewhat normal and the first reopening of stores will be occurring. Customers around the world are still in a phase of restricted public life. And nobody knows whether or not new phases of tightening will return in wave-like fashion after the restrictions have been eased. It goes without saying that consumers will gradually return to their professional and private everyday lives. But one thing is clear: Things are definitely not the same for customers at the moment as they used to be. They are now living with a new awareness and increased caution with respect to their health and safety. And this will be the case for a long time.

Clear Communication Creates Trust


So it’s not enough to open your doors and wait for normal everyday life to return to retail. Currently, the biggest challenge is to dispel customers’ fear of getting infected with the coronavirus. Retailers are responsible now for the health of their customers. Thus, companies should clearly communicate what appropriate measures they have to offer consumers. This can be done with instructions on display windows or door systems, for example. 

BIG IDEAS COVID-19 Retail Protection Poster

It will also give customers a sense of safety if all store employees wear a face mask, only a certain number of customers are let in, and clear walking routes and directions are specified. In addition, floor stickers can be used to remind customers throughout the store to keep a clearly defined safe distance. 

In the elevator, those floor stickers can signal the best possible standing positions for every single person to ensure a group trip that is reasonable and safe in epidemiological terms. Companies literally can and must show in this way: We are taking your health-related fears seriously and have taken effective measures for your safety.

Protection in Times of Financial Uncertainty


But the desire for consumers’ safety doesn’t just refer to health but also to customers’ financial future, which has been jeopardized by the corona crisis, often with a lasting effect. An example of how retailers can respond to this economic shock experienced by their customers: In the US, Hyundai is advertising with the so-called Job Loss Protection Program, which is waiving payments on a purchased car for buyers for up to six months in the event they lose their jobs. Here, the car manufacturer is starting precisely with the need of customers: It is dispelling their uncertainty or even fear of not being able to pay the installments of the car purchase in the future.  


Online-Shopping Will Innovate Retail


But the corona crisis has also changed consumer behavior regardless of health and finance-related fears. Consumers who previously wouldn't have considered using the option of online shopping have practically been forced to familiarize themselves with it in recent weeks. Food delivery platforms are registering high sales increases, a large part of which is probably being driven by new customers. Some of these customers will have developed a taste for online shopping during the pandemic and will continue to make personal use of this option.


It goes without saying that e-commerce had already massively changed the way customers shop long before COVID-19. Consumers love the speed and convenience of the internet trade, from easy and fast surfing through a plethora of products to payment at the touch of a button and delivery within a very short time to easy exchange of goods. These expectations have increased even further with the corona crisis and will be carried over with enhanced strength to the brick-and-mortar retail trade after COVID-19. So whoever wants to attract previous customers or win over new ones as a retailer has to develop strategies to offer the benefits of online shopping and even more. Against this background, the online business will not only be a competitor and challenge in the post-corona age in particular; it will inspire and innovate retail in a new way.


Courage for New Technology


When it comes to retail technology (AR, VR, AI, RFID), we have heard of it all before, even prior to the corona crisis, but to many, those technologies are still cryptic terms. However, it is certain that there will be no way around this technology in the future. So far, only a fraction of it is used in the brick-and-mortar retail trade. However, the possibilities are overwhelming. With augmented reality (AR), real elements can be augmented with additional content. So for example, you can just click through different lipstick colors and see how they appear on your own face, without actually having applied even one of them. Macy's shows how the product range can be infinitely extended in the truest sense of the word with virtual-reality technology. And The Home Depot guides customers along the shortest route to the desired product with its clever in-store navigation app. But the same question applies here: What pain points does the brand experience have, and how can these pain points be transformed into a positive experience through retail technology? 


More Valuable Than Ever: Touching, Feeling, Testing


In any case, one advantage of the brick-and-mortar retail trade is the fact that customers can feel, try on, and personally see and compare goods. That will be more valuable than ever after social distancing and closed stores. So why not go ahead and make a brand experience out of it for customers? Nike stores have running test zones where running outdoors is simulated with a treadmill and an enormous screen. In the process, the gait of the customer is recorded by several cameras and analyzed by employees to recommend the best pair of sneakers for him or her. An example of new experiences that the brick-and-mortar retail trade should develop and offer after the pandemic in countless, creative variants.


High Priority: Responsible Action 


In terms of sustainability, too, retailers need to rethink things more than ever. The corona crisis has virtually forced us in a brutal way to focus on what stake we people have in the disasters of our time. Now, consumers will be demanding complete transparency even more adamantly on how a company stands on sustainability-related and environmental issues. From the store design, for which regionally renewable resources can be used, to topics like recycling, reuse, and waste prevention. That starts with the store design already. For example: Before COVID-19, the IKEA store in London was already using renewable resources only and taking countless measures to successfully become the officially most sustainable store in Great Britain. That way, customers who will be including an environmental commitment of companies in their purchase decision with enhanced strength can be taken into account after the pandemic.  


Developing New Strategies Now


All companies should make use of the time until they reopen their stores and deal with customer needs and particularly the pain points in the brand experience of the post-corona age. Strategies need to be developed that solve problems in a creative and innovative way. Strategies that are tailored to the respective customers and even individually to every single one. After all, customer satisfaction alone will determine the success of a brand in the future as well.


Every retailer needs to ask itself these questions now: 


  • What reason will customers have in a time of cautious opening to come into my store?

  • What feelings will they enter the store with after reopening?

  • What have customers liked about my store so far?

  • And most of all, what did they not like already before the pandemic?


After all, the pain points in the customer experience are the greatest window of opportunity for any retailer. And that will be the case more than ever during opening after the crisis.

Book tip

In his new book "Retail Isn't Dead," retail and visual merchandising expert Matthias Spanke presents 15 of the most important and innovative strategies with which brick-and-mortar retailers can be relevant and successful in the future and after COVID-19. 

The book is practice and user-oriented, with a lot of tips and over 50 illustrated best-practice examples from various branches and from all over the world. Matthias Spanke is founder of the agency BIG IDEAS Visual Merchandising with headquarters in the US and Germany. The book is available in German and English.