The Coronavirus Storefront: How to buy

You want to buy something. You’ve looked over reviews, read a few articles and have made a structured argument as to why you want this thing (or, like two thirds of Americans, you trust your gut.) But . . . we’re in the midst of a pandemic. You need to keep as far away from people as possible. So what do you do? 

Placing an order online seems obvious, but the pandemic has complicated home deliveries by congesting delivery infrastructures, causing orders to take weeks to fulfill. Some customers have automated their orders using bots, freezing out others from grabbing time slots for home delivery. So while online shopping seems like the obvious solution to a socially distanced society, the infrastructure that makes these services possible is overwhelmed.

Visiting a brick-and-mortar store is the ideal (and unexpected) solution to getting what you need, especially because physical stores can fulfill orders that require immediacy (like groceries) due to their proximity to shoppers. But as mentioned in Part 1, store owners are faced with a paradox of how to maximize foot traffic while minimizing the number of people in their store. So how can storefronts utilize their strength of immediacy without putting employees and customers in harm’s way?

1: Hurdles with the Covid Cashier

Let’s break down the hurdles of making a purchase during COVID-19. The cash register, a ubiquitous presence in every store, has become a contaminated chokepoint, with cashiers conservatively seeing a few dozen customers a day. To add to this, consider that COVID-19 passes from person to person more easily when everyone is inside. So even with proper protection, these interior settings increase the chances of the coronavirus being passed around. In short, the cashier is now the most dangerous person the customer will meet on their journey.

Checkout during Covid-19 | Credit – Health+Safety Magazine

The pandemic doesn’t just impact a customer’s safety. Customers are used to getting in and out of stores without much hassle, so when there is an inconvenience, customers will attempt to avoid it. Roughly 51% of customers will leave a store without a purchase because lines are too long, that was in 2018. Long lines are now in front of the store instead of inside of it, allowing customers to assess a store and drive off without ever having to get out of their car.

So stands the question: how do you allow customers to quickly make a purchase at your store without a) threatening their safety and b) causing them to wait? 

2: Curbside Pickup

The turnkey solution to COVID-19-era purchases has been the curbside pickup. This is when you make your order online, drive to the store, and let an attendant pack your purchases into the back of your car. This allows for a quick and safe purchase without lines scaring off customers. Nearly every major retailer is providing these services, but if you want to get a sense of how seriously the adoption of curbside pickup is being taken, then you should look no further than the marijuana industry. 

Prior to the outbreak, if you wanted to get legal pot in Massachusetts, you would have to go through security that rivals some banks. This includes hidden communicators, bank vaults full of devil’s lettuce, and multiple checkpoints with guards who check your ID before finally being ushered into a secure room to make your selection. But as of May 25th, residents of Massachusetts can place curbside orders, driving up to get handed a bag of their favorite bud without leaving the car. This allows an emerging industry, notorious for long lines, to avoid line anxiety and crowd contamination. 

Customers waiting for curbside pickup of cannabis in somerset MA | Credit: CBS Boston

It’s not just Mary Jane who’s been adapting. Curbside pickup has helped big box stores and grocers recover some of their foot traffic, according to our sister agency Carat, with chains like CVS, Home Depot and Nordstrom all adopting the curbside model. Variety has begun to emerge in what curbside services can provide, with drive through job fairs being an early example.

While curbside pickup is the most relatively turnkey solution to Covid Commerce, realize that this doesn’t mean that it’s an easy to implement solution. Curbside pickup requires coordinating a massive number of moving parts, including scheduling, pickup slot management, optimizing a store’s operations and integrating with existing order placement systems. Isobar excels with this type of digital juggling. If you’d like to learn more about how to do that,take a look at our Curbside Pickup Manager solution, which does the heavy lifting for curbside pickup.

3: Smart Stores

The long-term solution for the Coronavirus Storefront is smart-store technology, which automates parts of a store, such as the managing foot traffic, inventory and purchases, while freeing up associates and creating actionable insights. Smart-store technology removes a lot of friction from the shopping experience, allowing a customer to move as seamlessly, and as safely, through stores as physically possible.

There already exists a handful of stores that utilize this technology. Chinese online marketplace Alibaba developed a concept store in 2018 to prove out the use of RFID tags, smart mirrors and cashierless transactions with hopes of opening more stores in China. In the United States, Amazon has been leading the charge with their Amazon Go Store model, allowing customers to grab what they need and leave, with all transactions charged to their card with no human interaction. Amazon began selling the system as a service as of earlier this year.

Amazon Go Store | Credit: Supermarket News

There is a caveat: stores designed from the ground up to be smart stores are expensive to set up and implement, making it only useful for stores that see huge amounts of foot traffic, such as grocery stores and big box stores. There are more modular solutions, such as contactless temperature stations and self-service kiosks, which 62% of shoppers prefer to use, both helping to ensure safer shopping experiences. Existing tech, like security cameras, can have software installed that allow to track foot traffic, manage the number of customers in store and identify points of potential congestion. 

Not all of these solutions are ideal. There are some security concerns regarding tracking customers using cameras, facial recognition and AI. Other concerns are brought up in how useful this tech really is. One example is how grocery chain Stop and Shop began to use Marty, an autonomous robot, to patrol the aisles and report on spills, but doesn’t clean them up. The autonomous robot has faced mixed reviews, being called creepy, and is currently involved in a murder investigation. 

Marty’s in action | Credit: Medium

Smart store technology has potential to create strong and lasting infrasture in storefronts that ensure everyone’s safety, but the focus for implementing this tech should not be on invasive and flashy salves, but easy to implement and helpful solutions that provide utility past the pandemic.

Conclusion 

While at-home delivery is a pleasant luxury, especially in a time of ongoing social distancing, businesses have had trouble keeping up with the demand triggered by COVID-19. Brick-and-mortar stores are a great alternative to overwhelmed delivery infrastructures. By leveraging curbside pickup, and smart store implementations, merchants can meet consumer needs while ensuring the safety of both customers and employees.

In part 3, we’ll be exploring the final legs of consumer journey, and how all of this will impact business after the pandemic.

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