As the pandemic swept across the country, companies were forced to adjust their business models. At first, it was not optional; state lockdown orders and limits on how many people could occupy an indoor space left retailers with few options. But it wasn't long before customers got used to some of the new norms in shopping, and businesses found themselves making more permanent changes in order to accommodate consumer demand. Some of those changes won't last, but others might stick around post-COVID.
Unusual stress — like a pandemic — forces businesses to adapt. In this case, innovative brands made the most of the situation and found opportunity even in a very real national crisis. They turned to technology, such as Ombori Grid, creating organized options designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. One of the tools that helped confront the new reality was appointment-based shopping — an alternative to traditional walk-in shopping.
Understanding Appointment-Based Shopping
Walk-in refers to the kind of shopping experience most consumers are used to; walking into a store whenever and wherever they'd like and purchasing or browsing merchandise.
It has long been the default way we go about routine, daily shopping like buying groceries and gas as well as more impulsive or leisure-based shopping, like a visit to the mall.
Appointment-based shopping, on the other hand, describes when customers book a time in advance of when they plan to visit a store. Generally, these appointments are scheduled via an online booking system offered by the retailer through systems such as Ombori appointment booking.
For many consumers, one of the most recognizable forms of appointment-based retail shopping happens at the Apple store. For years, Apple has utilized appointment-based shopping to provide tech support for its customers; Apple customers log on to the website and schedule their visit to the store ahead of time, helping minimize excessive lines and ensuring efficient visits.
How Shopping Was Impacted by COVID-19
During the pandemic, alternative shopping methods became necessary, and appointment-based shopping took off like never before.
John Federman, CEO of JRNI, recently discussed the change: "Appointments [allowed] you to keep the lights on and effectively schedule staff." He continued, "It also [kept] the staff more productive. If an associate [could] spend time with someone with a high propensity to buy, they [could] use their time more effectively. It supports the consultative experience that's a definer for how consumers want to be treated."
When they implemented appointment-based shopping on such a large scale, retailers were surprised by some of the benefits as well as the drawbacks of the new approach:
Pros of Appointment-Based Shopping
- Complying completely with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines was a significant benefit of appointment-based shopping for retailers. Social distancing and maximum capacity rules were more manageable with this format; by controlling the flow of traffic with predictable tools, businesses focused on customer experience rather than on managing lines.
- Improved customer satisfaction might be a surprising result of appointment-based shopping for some readers, but when customers feel that they have the full attention of an employee and that their visit is purposeful, they report a higher level of satisfaction.
- Maximization of staff efficiency was a significant benefit for businesses. As Federman explained, knowing that your customer is likely to make a purchase and didn't just wander into the store on a whim creates a greater sense of urgency and purpose among employees.
Cons of Appointment-Based Shopping
- Requiring consumers to schedule their days creates a barrier between customers and businesses that did not exist before. Generally, a retailer works to make their products or services as readily available to as many people as possible.
- Walk-ins or late customers threaten the appointment-based shopping system by slowing down the process, creating pile-ups of customers who expect to be seen when they arrive on time.
- Deterring pop-in visits is probably the most apparent, significant drawback of losing walk-in shopping. Some retailers generate a good deal of revenue from walk-in customers who wouldn't otherwise visit their store.
Pros of Walk-In Shopping
- Allowing consumers to browse and shop longer often increases their chance to spend their money at a business. With appointment-based shopping, that time decreases.
- Flexibility is essential not only for customers with busy lives but also for some employees and business owners too, and a walk-in shopping model allows flexibility.
- Marketing is sometimes easier when customers are physically present at your location—having a flash sale, showing off a new product, or handing out samples? That experience is out of reach to most of the public without walk-ins.
Cons of Walk-In Shopping
- Complying with COVID-10 guidelines was undoubtedly more difficult for businesses without appointment-based shopping as it was harder to control crowds.
- Long lines are a great way to deter customers, and an unpredictable rush of customers is out of a retailer's control with walk-in shopping.
- Less purposeful shopping can result in wasted time for staff who invest in customers that don't plan on purchasing anything.
How Did Appointment-Based Shopping Affect the Walk-in Shopper?
Appointment-based shopping provided a solution to many problems, but the pandemic made it clear that appointment-based shopping was more suitable for specialty visits than regular retail visits.
Consider big retailers like Target, where customers often arrive intending to buy things that catch their attention. The loss of walk-in shopping for those businesses causes more harm than good. Specialist retailers, however, like jewelers and furniture sellers, typically serve customers who have a goal in mind and intend to make a purchase. For them, appointment-based shopping held far more benefits than drawbacks.
What Will Appointment-Based Shopping and Walk-in Shopping Look Like in A Post-Pandemic World?
Specialty stores may find it beneficial to continue appointment-based shopping even after the pandemic, but it is unlikely to become the default for most businesses.
Georganne Bender, Principal at Kizer & Bender Speaking, reports, "Shopping by appointment works for Apple when we need the expertise of a Genius, and it works at some high-end designer stores because one-on-one attention is part of the ambiance that attracts luxury shoppers … But for most retailers, it's just not a good idea. Being required to make an appointment is overkill for customers who have a tech question that likely could be answered by an associate on the sales floor."
Instead, the lasting changes of the pandemic will be things like a shift to an increased demand for curbside pickup. Curbside pickup, also referred to as curbside shopping or curbside delivery, describes the concept of purchasing items online, then collecting them directly outside of the store.
Companies such as Ombori refer to this innovative concept as BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store) or BOPAC (curbside pickup).
Stress and Innovation
New stressors and obstacles like COVID are difficult for businesses, but they also force us to make progress. Experiments with new technology and shopping paradigms are less likely to happen if they don't have to, and even if appointment-based shopping doesn't wholly supplant the walk-in shopping experience we are used to, the entire retail industry has learned a few new tricks and expanded its collective playbook.