Expert: How Covid-19 has changed brick-and-mortar shopping

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Kristina: There are several reports out on the quick adoption, by consumers, of e-commerce for everything from groceries to beauty products – is this adding to the issues physical stores are having?

Krish Iyer, Head of Industry Relations, ShipStation:Yes and no. It’s certainly making consumers realize that they don’t need to go to physical storefronts for everything that they thought they did, but in that same vein, COVID has streamlined a digital and physical retail revolution. Brands who didn’t have an e-commerce presence quickly scaled to get one, and those who relied on brick-and-mortar with no plans to scale took advantage of sales tactics like curbside pick-ups and on-demand deliveries to stay afloat. So yes, e-commerce is ultimately taking foot traffic away from storefronts (especially right now when going into stores isn’t the first choice for consumers), but at the same time, the entire movement is encouraging retailers to build out more robust omnichannel strategies.

Kristina: What do retailers and brands need to do, at this point, to keep their physical stores relevant?

Krish: Clear, easy to understand, and flexible returns policies can help brands keep their physical stores relevant. Even before COVID, we were actually starting to see consumers research returns policies online while they were shopping in stores before making a purchase. Also, if consumers are doing the majority of their shopping online, make your brick-and-mortar store an “experience hub” for returns and shipments. A “buy online pick up in-store” strategy can encourage the consumer who prefers to shop from the couch to buy from a brand without having to pay shipping surcharges. Once the item is in the hands of the consumer at the retail location, the brand has an opportunity to showcase additional inventory, cater to try-on needs, and even help to make a return transaction if the consumer passes on the item.

Kristina: How can merchants and retailers optimize physical storefronts?

Krish: For optimization, brands need to view their selling channels (online vs. in-store) as integrated… for the long term. Consumers have been forced to shop solely online for months, and they may be more hesitant to purchase directly from a brick-and-mortar location, especially if they’ve been exposed to a myriad of deals available for similar items from other digitally native brands. I’d encourage retailers to also try the digitally native “showroom” concept — giving consumers a limited try-on inventory, with the last mile purchase taking place online. This is another tactic that gives consumers a physical touchpoint with an item and a brand, reassuring them of fit and making them more likely to purchase the item from that certain brand online versus the competition.

Kristina: Is there a way merchants can fill the gap between consumers’ digital experience and the in-store experience to increase engagement and build loyalty?

Krish: Pop up stores and showrooms, as I mentioned above, are definitely a way to help bridge the engagement gap between storefronts and digital. However, fostering customer loyalty, at the end of the day, really goes back to how brands conduct customer communications. Especially now, consumers understand (and probably expect) that policies and orders will quickly change due to the impact of COVID. But low expectations actually create a unique opportunity for retailers to over-communicate with the consumer, ultimately building brand trust for a lifetime. This is accomplished by setting clear guidelines on & offering real-time updates about returns policies, shipment delays, and store openings/closures.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristina Knight is a freelance writer based in Ohio, United States. She began her career in radio and television broadcasting, focusing her energies on health and business reporting. After six years in the industry, Kristina branched out on her own. Since 2001, her articles have appeared in Family Delegate, Credit Union Business, FaithandValues.com and with Threshold Media.