As we connect online, are we losing connection offline?

In the prolonged period of physical store closures, the expansion of digital has led to two consumer reactions: exacerbation of our craving for human connection and our reliance of technology to engage with brands.

There is no doubt that this pandemic has prompted many brands to focus on their digital channels to the consumer, resulting in more personalised experiences and a notable spike in chat-based commerce.

It would appear that the luxury brands in the retail arena have been first off the mark to embrace digital innovation during COVID-19, with everything from augmented reality e-commerce to video games and live-streaming. This is a smart move, not just for now, but for the future, as our shopper becomes increasingly immersed in virtual and digital worlds.

Burberry shifted gears very quickly when the pandemic escalated to the shutdown of physical retail, launching a digital tool in the UK and US that allowed its customers to shop by selecting and placing its products into their own environments. Through Google search, shoppers can view AR versions of their search results, at scale. Simulating an in-store experience is no easy feat and inspiring the customer to decide to buy can be a lot less compelling in a digital environment, but this AR tool brings the two retail worlds closer together for the customer.

Addressing the consumer’s desire for entertainment, and our need for interesting content during lockdown, Louis Vuitton launched a series of virtual exhibitions and cultural programs. In a similar vein, Loewe launched “Loewe en casa,” a series of online workshops on Instagram Live to inspire their followers to embrace creativity in isolation. Staying connected to customers in a time of forced disconnection has clearly required a creative approach, and this has undoubtedly played a part in the successful reopening of some brands.

Relevance is a high priority in the eyes and minds of our consumers, and its importance isn’t faltering. This is where e-commerce can really excel, as the digital eye is all-seeing and all-knowing, following shoppers wherever we may go. Consumers react very well to intuitive experiences, predicting our current needs and playing to them. There is a lot to be said for making it easy, fast and relevant. And then we arrive at the physical store in our new retail world, and we are faced with multiple hurdles.

How to make queuing exciting

As I made my way through the shopping centre recently, it was certainly a new experience as I witnessed queues trailing outside of each store. Last weekend was my first physical retail expedition after isolating my credit card for two months, and I was excited to unleash it onto some of my favourite brands.  

What I didn’t expect was to arrive to more than 10 people in front of me, and a one-in, one-out policy to maintain store capacity regulations. As I stood there, obediently on my social distancing floor decal, a few others in front of me weren’t so tolerant, highlighting human impatience for even the slightest delay on pleasure.

On average, retail consumers believe that five to 10 minutes is the maximum acceptable amount of time that they are prepared to wait in a line. If a line appears to be too long, most customers will make the decision to walk away. I would question how this new introduction of queuing for retail would impact the consumer’s purchasing intention. If the experience is one that encourages excitement and positive expectation, it could yield positive results for the retailer.

New rules about sitting down

Imagine a world a bit like the movie Mean Girls, where you’re constantly told during a shopping trip, “No, you can’t sit there”. Well, that is the reality for all of us now, and it’s resulting in a lot of loitering and awkward leaning against railings to chow down your lunch in the food court. Limited capacity requirements within shopping centres, stores and eateries could continue for some time, but the real question is, how long will we put up with stand-up lunching? And are these rules and restrictions damaging our long-term perception of dining out?  

I’m certainly not in a hurry to return to hurriedly scoffing my chicken sandwich leaning against a pillar. Many food retailers and restaurants have diversified during this COVID-19 period to cater for home delivery, but as we begin to venture out and brands are in their half-open state, people will expect to be able to sit down to eat their fajita.

The change in changing rooms

“Try before you buy” is not quite so simple anymore. Many retailers have taken the approach of not reopening any fitting rooms, and some have opened alternate changing areas. To encourage social distancing, this safety measure is, of course, resulting in further delays in the customer’s store experience.

Queuing for fitting rooms can go one of two ways depending on the retailer’s investment in the space, which, more often than not, isn’t a focus area. With customers queuing for fitting rooms, there is an opportunity to engage them in more product, brand values, social or digital crossover, community messaging or simply providing an opportunity to rehydrate with a refill water station or a recharging station (a Lululemon and Adidas tactic). Staff will also be required to step up; as customers queue, they are able to engage and positively impact their purchase intentions.

Ultimately, we know our consumer is time-pressed – or, at the very least, selective of how they wish to spend their time – and increasingly desires a highly relevant outcome. Their purchasing decisions are significantly impacted by heavy product volume in-store and online, and this clutter (in any channel) is losing retailers conversions.

In the immediate term, which is a very usual period for both the customer and the retailer, we need to think beyond the regulations which are restricting every facet of our daily lives, and now, more than ever, we need to amplify the enjoyment of shopping.

Jemma Caprioli is chief customer officer at print company Dashing Group.

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