Shopping in the COVID age: a whole new ballgame

Author: Rachel Hinde-Harris

If you had told me in February that I would not go out to shop for months, I would have never believed you. But it is the reality, and I have yet to return to bricks-and-mortar stores.

Now, as lockdown eases, high streets are looking less like ghost towns – however, things are not what they used to be.

Consumers: concerned and cautious

With restrictions coming to an end, I was wondering how shopping during the crisis has been for others.

To find out what my colleagues at Panasonic in the UK and across Europe think, I set up an anonymous survey. 76 people took part, and they had plenty to say.

The words nervous, cautious, anxious and overwhelmed cropped up again and again. Although the vast majority (84%) visited a shop during lockdown, only 69% planned on venturing into non-essential stores in the near future. That means just shy of 31% will not – a huge hit for retailers.

Seeing hygiene measures in action – e.g. staff sanitising surfaces and monitoring the number of customers inside – eased some concerns. Conversely, encountering many mask-free faces made respondents uncomfortable.

Many said they would steer clear of crowded shops and long queues. They also voiced support for a range of safety measures, especially hand sanitiser stations (77%), queue management (76%), capacity limits (73%) and social distancing markers (72%). One-way systems were considered comparatively less important (57%).

Retailers: rapid change requires a rapid response

As Carla Buzasi of WGSN highlighted during a recent Retail Week virtual panel, the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already on the horizon. What we expected to see two or three years down the road is happening now. I saw this reflected in the survey: Fully 78% said that they would be changing their approach to shopping. Respondent after respondent reported that they had turned to buying online for home delivery, some exclusively. Click-and-collect services also gained popularity.

So how can physical retailers maintain profitability while adhering to the government’s instructions?

And how can technology be deployed – to ease the burden on retailers, allow shoppers to have a positive experience, and help both stay safe?

Tackling COVID rules – with the right tools

Shops can harness capacity monitoring systems to understand how staff and customers are using floor space. With this information, retailers can configure their store layout to maximise the number of people safely allowed in. Additionally, customer analytics can be employed to identify patterns of movement and hotspots. These insights can be used to better manage people flows in stores and queues outside stores – entrance management displays indicate the number of customers inside, and tell customers when they can enter. This is not only reassuring; it also allows staff to focus on other customer-service tasks.

Stock monitoring solutions help to avoid empty shelves – which can annoy and worry shoppers, and mean lost sales. Both they and electric shelf labels (ESLs) automate tasks and free up staff. ESLs also allow retailers to interact (digitally) with customers – via customisable and relevant messages, such as social distancing reminders.

The positives

So there are steps retailers can take. There are also things consumers can do: You cannot control everything (i.e. whether your alarmingly close fellow shopper is wearing their mask properly – or at all). But the vast majority of respondents are taking the initiative, donning face masks (74%) and ensuring a bottle of hand sanitiser is always handy (81%).

And there was a silver lining to it all. Despite their reservations and reluctance to visit certain shops, roughly 82% do believe things will eventually return to normal.

So, although we are still having to contend with uncertainty – there is optimism there as well.

If you are interested in learning more about technologies to help retailers cope with the challenges of a world with COVID, visit our web page or contact us.