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The COVID Retail Customer Experience: Is it Here to Stay?

Rui Tian
Design Lead of Ombori Apps AB

E-commerce trends have steadily increased over the past few years as platforms such as Amazon continue to create effective methods for consumers to gain quick and easy access to everyday products. Prior to the pandemic, the use of digital platforms was limited – primarily to larger big-box stores. However, since the pandemic started sweeping across the globe, companies – both large and small – have been forced to adopt an omnichannel approach. 

“Omnichannel” refers to the integration of multiple methods of shopping. For the retail customer experience, an omnichannel approach refers to the blend of in-store and e-commerce shopping. 

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Retail Customer Experience

Omnichannel retail has become more and more prevalent during the pandemic. COVID-19 abruptly changed our shopping experience.

As consumers, we had to direct our efforts to alternative methods of purchasing items to avoid in-store experiences. Per guidelines recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), individuals were advised to remain home and practice social distancing, which made traditional in-store shopping impossible.

As a result, retailers were forced to adapt to changing demands by developing new methods for selling products. Since then, businesses have come to rely on innovative technologies such as those available via the Ombori Grid to continue operations. They have depended primarily on two strategies: buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and buy online, pick up at curbside (BOPAC).

What is BOPIS?

BOPIS refers to the act of buying products online and picking them up in the store.

Customers can find out if a retailer offers BOPIS by checking for additional shipping options during online checkout. If BOPIS is available, a customer can add items to the online cart, select in-store pick up, and complete the rest of the checkout process normally. When the order is ready for pickup, the customer receives a notification and can pick up the order at their convenience during the store’s business hours. At the beginning of the pandemic, BOPIS grew 28% year-over-year (February 2020). 

What is BOPAC?

BOPAC is similar to BOPIS, except instead of picking up purchases in-store, consumers have the ability to pick them up curbside.

This service supports the ability of shoppers to avoid entering a store altogether. Instead, they are able to shop online and pick up curbside. Once they are notified that their purchase is ready, they can simply go to the store and a retail employee, wearing a mask to further ensure customer safety, will bring the order to them. Curbside pickup is fairly new to most of us and educating customers on how the process works has been an important component of the strategy. 

Both BOPIS and BOPAC have allowed thousands of retailers to continue serving customers while practicing social distancing. Even businesses deemed essential have started adopting these strategies.

Additionally, both BOPAC and BOPIS have resulted in a more positive customer experience by creating a shopping environment that adheres to mandated or recommended social distancing restrictions. Many retailers are likely to continue using both strategies in a post-pandemic world.

 

Monitoring Store Occupancy

Queue management systems such as Ombori offer retailers the ability to monitor store occupancy through leading technologies.

Ombori Occupancy Control uses cameras to count people entering and leaving a building without any human intervention. These systems reassure shoppers that stores are in compliance with social distancing guidelines – an essential element of shopping during such anxious times. 

How COVID-19 Trends May Influence the Future

According to McKinsey and Company, omnichannel leaders are adapting to the “next normal” in customer experience by proactively taking five key actions:

Doubling down on digital technology

Retailers need to invest in their online presence and drive traffic to digital assets. To support this shift, retailers must ensure the experience truly involves “zero friction.” A digital presence can include mobile apps and social media platforms, all directed toward creating a “community” for the brand. 

The technology used by retailers to double down on their digital presence must support quick service. Load speed is paramount for retaining current customers and attracting new ones. Slow download times can reduce conversion rates. 

Injecting innovation into the omnichannel approach

Blending the in-store and online experience is crucial for engaging customers in a post-pandemic world. Businesses need to learn how to use new platforms that can enhance the customer experience while building brand loyalty. 

Ombori offers numerous features that can be used to engage retail shoppers. For example, Guided Selling helps customers shop in-store, while Store Assistant offers customers the ability to shop in-store and order products to be shipped directly to their home, and Selfie Mirror promotes selfie pictures and marketing within the store. 

In addition, retailers must focus on diversifying their delivery mechanisms and developing retail partnerships to support and elevate the retail customer experience. 

Transforming store operations and winning on “SafeX”

“SafeX” refers to safer experiences. Even as fears associated with the pandemic begin to subside, many customers are likely to continue requesting safer experiences. 

If anything, the pandemic has raised awareness of the science behind viruses, and as this knowledge remains relevant to consumers, they will continue to monitor their interactions to ensure their own well-being and the safety of their families. Safer environments can be achieved through the use of technology, including BOPIS and BOPAC. 

Reimagining the physical world

Analysts have long studied how in-store experiences have shifted in response to e-commerce trends. Before the pandemic, results already indicated that retailers needed to change the physical experience of retail shoppers. For example, brick-and-mortar store sales were already declining as consumers sought more experiential shopping opportunities. This trend has continued during the pandemic, and retailers must redesign their physical space to create a “new normal” for future shoppers. 

Leveraging an omnichannel approach is just one example of how retailers can redefine physical store space for a post-pandemic shopping experience. 

Embracing an agile operating model

As time passes, retailers must learn to analyze their systems and adapt according to consumer demands. No one could have predicted the challenges of 2020, and retailers who have successfully survived the pandemic are the ones who were able to adapt to these new trends. 

What Does a Post-COVID Retail Experience Look Like?

How these elements will shape the new normal is still up in the air, and we will only know the outcome in hindsight after the pandemic starts to recede.

However, research and surveys conducted over the past year have shown that consumer demand is changing, and COVID-19 may have impacted the retail customer experience forever. The good news for retailers is that these changing experiences are proving to help retailers meet their business goals.

New technologies have not only permitted businesses to adapt to the pandemic, but have also promoted brand loyalty, increased sales and customer satisfaction, created a smoother customer shopping journey, collected valuable data by tracking customers, and dismantled silos between online and in-store shopping. 

 

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