Consumers want more than barriers and masks to return to stores

By Duncan Potter, CMO at Pricer

Our conversations with retailers reveal some uncertainty as to how consumers will judge the efforts that have been made so far by retailers in terms of creating a safe shopping environment during COVID-19. Trends indicating consumers spending less time in-store shopping and more time with social commerce, virtual consultations and curbside pickup services, call for more solutions to address the safety aspect of in-store shopping.

Not only is it likely that the pandemic will continue for the next year, it is also likely that consumer expectations for a safe shopping experience will persist well beyond the pandemic. This means that retailers will need to succeed better in addressing this issue and be able to increase the consumer confidence in the store shopping experience.

In the initial phase of the pandemic, concrete actions like physical barriers and encouraged use of face masks played an essential role in meeting the acute needs for a safer in-store experience. But as the stats show, this is not anymore enough and will probably not be in the future either, as consumer fears could stick.

Touch less things

The good news is that it can be fairly easy to address these concerns and make additional in-store safety actions.  For instance, developments in touchless technologies, based on ESLs (Electronic Shelf Labels), have enabled store staff to do daily tasks such as inventory and replenishment in a way that involves less contact with both products and shelves by the personnel. Touchless can also play a key role in reducing consumer facing touch-areas, such as offering additional options for consumers to pay with touchless payment cards or smartphones at the shelf edge.

Technology can also play a key role in optimising the time spent in store. With ESL flash functionality activated at the shelf edge, staff can locate products quicker when they are servicing click & collect orders, reducing the time they spend in the aisles and avoiding disturbing already edgy consumers. As the demand for click & collect services have increased greatly during the pandemic, this could have a significant effect especially in those geographic areas where the only option is to use in-store inventory instead of a “dark store” or centralized warehouse.

No wandering around

But consumers not only want the staff to spend less time in the aisles, they also want to spend less time themselves, fearing that store environments could bring them into contact with the virus. Therefore, stores would likely be helped by activating product positioning functionality at the shelf edge, helping consumers use their store app to guide them directly to the product and reduce the time they spend wandering around the store.

Assuming that the retailer already has an ESL system installed, activating these types of functionality does not require any big investments for most retailers, and for those that don’t, these additional capabilities can be used to drive a renewed look at the business case behind such as system.  Once the system is installed, it is just a matter of activating existing functionality, training the staff and educating the consumers.

While a lot of retailers immediately introduced physical barriers in stores and encouraged both staff and consumers to wear face masks, numbers show that consumers expect more in order to feel safe when shopping. It is also likely that these increased demands for a safer experience will stay beyond the immediate pandemic.  So, embracing a more sophisticated and feature rich shelf edge approach becomes more and more attractive (and useful) for both in-store staff as well as in-store shoppers.

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