The Coronavirus Storefront: Figuring Out What to Buy

Brick-and-mortar businesses are fighting for their survival in the wake of COVID-19. Accounting for a massive portion of purchases in the US, they have seen their sales plunge to historic levels especially in March and April, triggering layoffs and bankruptcies. And it’s easy to see why. COVID-19 has turned the conveniences that differentiate storefront into hurdles. Physically interacting with products has become a gamble, customer service is difficult to maintain with social distancing, returns are complicated, and the in-store experience is a complete non-starter if customers are focused on getting out quickly.

So what can be done? In this series, we’ll walk through how the storefront consumer journey has changed, and how it can be addressed. Because how brick-and-mortar stores address the pandemic today will shape their brands’ futures. 

Consumer Journey

Awareness → Consideration → Purchase → Retention → Advocacy

Did you know that prior to the pandemic you visited the grocery store about 584 times in a year? This weekly travel is what brick and mortar businesses subsist on, with the hope of being discovered as people pass by and take a peek inside. This has likely plummeted since the start of the pandemic.

While everyone still needs to visit the grocery store, there’s no longer an opportunity for exploration or for tactile inspection. As a result of the pandemic, how customers discover and assess products has been disrupted.


Differentiators becoming Hurdles

The pandemic has turned conveniences that differentiate the storefront into hurdles.

Being able to interact with products like clothing, a significant draw for storefronts, has become a gamble. Customer service, a defining experience for companies like Apple and their Genius Bars, becomes difficult when social distancing is the norm. Returns become complicated, and the in store experience, something that has helped companies like Starbucks weather recessions, is a complete non-starter if you’re focused on getting out quickly.

This comes also in the wake of consumers budgeting due to uncertain times and unemployment, to the point where it’s fairly easy to find newly written guides. Customers are also budgeting a new limited resource: time spent going out. While we still want to go out, explore, socialize, we are now extremely careful about when and where. This is because each time we go out, it increases the chances of contracting COVID-19, and for those living with vulnerable family members, any increase in chances is best avoided.

Awareness in Isolation:

Found in front of Stop & Shop

Product and store discovery during Covid-19 produces a paradox. As a store owner you want to increase foot traffic, but, in a pandemic you want as little foot traffic as possible to reduce the danger of contraction. The solution is to intertwine digital and physical awareness plays, making digital tools easy to access via physical media.

QR codes are perfect for this, and can track usage. RFID and NFC chips, inexpensive short range sensors, can be embedded into signage, giving users access to tools by hovering their phones over signs. Face masks are also an opportunity. By printing QR codes onto masks, wearers can receive discounts each time their mask is scanned. 

Awareness in Covid-19 should be used to clearly communicate with your customers, and smooth out their transition into a new routine. When the pandemic hit, the first wave of awareness we saw coming from companies were CEO’s sending emails declaring that they would be empathetic towards their customers and staff while taking precautions. But along every ad discussing ‘uncertain times’, this mass empathy reductively appears as apathy. 

People just want to understand how businesses have changed. This isn’t to say that empathy is to be avoided, only that it’s mass saturation contributes to confusion of how I can purchase groceries and get my car repaired. 

By intertwining awareness with digital consideration tools, customers begin to ease from discovery to assessment just as easy as they would in a physical store.

Augmented Reality: 

Have you ever realized how much touch and interpersonal interaction is involved with going to a store? We try on clothes, inspect fruit and fiddle with cars. Covid makes tactile inspections impossible, as the diseases can live on a surface from anywhere from a couple hours to days. Augmented reality offers a solution.

It’s not a novel solution either. Augmented reality, which allows users to place and interact digital assets into the real world, has been used for years. Covergirl has let users try on makeup digitally since 2018, eyewear company Warby Parker lets you try on new eyeglasses, and Ikea Place let’s users decorate their home without ever moving a piece of furniture. Interactive AR gives users the ability to explore products, letting users change colors and swap out features. You know that couch you want? Well you can swap out the color, material and style to make sure it goes well with everything. 

Ikea Place

While some experiences require an app, WebAR can be used to avoid downloads by hosting the experience over the web. The ability to get WebAR up and running has been greatly simplified, with small interactive moments now able to be now placed on websites and in articles. Google even includes WebAR models in some mobile search results. If you want to get a sense of the experience, check out some of our work right here.

Scan with your phone’s camera to view demo

 Credit to 8thwall for demo

Voice and Chatbots:

A big loss in the wake of the corona is the ability to talk to a store associate. These staff offer recommendations, let you know if something is in stock and offer expertise. However this interaction is now impossible due to social distancing. So how do you maintain good customer service? Simple, bots.

Like augmented reality, bots aren’t novel. Whole Foods released a messenger a few years ago that let users search for food using emojis and could suggest recipes based on your basket. Both Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger had bots that offered fashion advice and ‘behind the scenes’ content for fashion shows, encouraging repeat visits. 

Voicebot stats on Voice Assistant Usage in the UK

Usage with voice assistants might rise in the coming months, in the UK, 53% of users report they are using Voice Assistants more since the start of Corona and 64% of users are interested in ordering food via smart assistant. Voice can also help with promotions. Nike used Google Assistant to sell their Adapt BB self lacing shoes at halftime during an NBA game. Simply by telling Google to ‘Ask Nike’ you could place an order. The sneakers sold out in 6 mins

Bots can inform customers if something is out of stock, offer recommendations and help with scheduling for visits and pickup. Smart speakers can be set up in stores or out in waiting areas to allow for order prepping and reduce time in store. Both offer  new data, identifying keywords customers use, which is then used to update the bot, standardizing the brands response to new developments.

Both types of bots have become easier to build, and boast versatile deployment. Chatbots can exist on nearly any text based platform, like Facebook and Slack, on websites and within Google ad units. Voice can be hosted on nearly any smartphone or can be interacted with over a call.

Corona has placed a huge amount of pressure on store associates, as they balance their job with their personal safety. Bots help fill this gap, offering standardized answers to emerging questions, a quick automated way to set up pick up orders, a conversational helper in a time where we’re all isolated while preserving everyone’s safety.

Parting Thoughts

Customers no longer have the ability to discover new stores and peer through displays as they search for what they need. Instead, a store visit is now a quick and tense moment, one where the safety of your employees and of your customers is now the priority. By interweaving physical and digital awareness, customers are directed towards interactive consideration, protecting employees while allowing for the discovery and service that makes the brick and mortar business model so appealing.

In the next section, we’ll be discussing purchase.