How brick-and-mortar retailers can win back customers in 2021

Published February 18, 2021

Despite the ongoing pandemic and the uncertainty of widespread vaccination, this year could be an exciting one for brick-and-mortar retailers.

Online sales may have dominated growth in 2020 at 16 percent—but nothing beats a killer in-store experience—and data shows that predictions of brick-and-mortar’s demise were premature.

And the introduction of a vaccine does provide some signs that there will eventually be an end to the pandemic. So the lingering eagerness for human connection in retail could lead to a large increase in sales. All those customers who were denied the thrills of in-store shopping may be ready to hit the malls and department stores at full speed.

But what if the novelty quickly wears off?

If retailers want to stay competitive with fully e-commerce businesses and win back customers in 2021, they’ll need to step up their game. And that comes down to having greater awareness of customers’ needs and values in the new normal, along with reinventing storefronts with an emphasis on the experience and the merging of online and in-store options. 

Put health and safety at the top of your list

Even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, its impact won’t fade anytime soon. Consumers value safety and want to know that the places they shop have mastered all the sanitizing, social distancing and safety requirements put in place in 2020.

The majority of global public opinion sways toward respecting social distancing and mask mandates—especially in retail settings. This has caused a renewed importance in how consumers view sanitization and health standards in public places.

According to Deloitte’s Store Re-opening Executive Summary, “The future of store operations will likely require reducing touch and friction and pivoting to focus on safety to meet the changing needs of the customer,” and “Customers may seek inspiration from retailers that convey trust, authenticity and transparency.” This clearly illustrates that strong safety measures are a driving force behind getting customers back in the door.

Retailers that go above and beyond are the ones that will win back customers, too. Initiatives that highlight health and safety increase brand confidence and improve how shoppers perceive retailers. To keep health and safety top of mind, try the following:

Communicate safety procedures clearly

Make sure you have signs explaining clearly your store’s policies on masks and social distancing. This promotes transparency and cuts down on would-be difficult customers pushing back against vague protocols. 

Address the new normal

Go beyond the basic safety measures, and have plans in place for crowd management and mandated sanitation. Also keep masks and sanitizer on hand so all customers and staff understand health procedures. 

Sanitize everything

Have sanitizer available for shopping carts and baskets as well as stations throughout the store for customers to sanitize their hands. This is an easy way to make a big impact on cleanliness without affecting the overall shopping experience negatively. 

Train staff

Remember that customers might be averse to hands-on customer service and prefer staff to keep their distance. Being respectful of this while pushing for cleanliness and mandated sick days goes a long way in how a retail brand reflects its health and safety values.

Increase self-checkout

In 2020, the demand for self-checkout increased as consumers desire for contactless shopping grew. That’s not going to change and retailers who invest in the most convenient, easy-to-use and frictionless self-checkout will attract and keep customers coming back.

Above all, make sure safety is an integrated part of your business operations. It should be obvious from before customers even enter your store and after they’ve made their purchase that you value the health of your customers above all else. This is the first step to winning back customers post-COVID-19. 

Offer a greater range of products

Offering a greater range of products in one place cuts back on the number of stops shoppers need to make to get everything they need. Today’s consumers are planning out their shopping excursions in detail to get all their shopping done in one trip.

Fifty percent of shoppers now claim to be “trip planners” versus less than twenty-five percent before the pandemic started. Trip planners are the type of customer who fastidiously map out where they’re going ahead of time. This means little exploration or discovery within the shopping experience, so offering a wider selection of products increases the likelihood these shoppers will end up in your store.

A creative and effective way that retailers are embracing this “one-stop shop” strategy is by opening smaller pop-up shops within larger retail spaces. For example, Kohl’s and Sephora have partnered up to open miniature makeup boutiques within Kohl’s department stores, with a plan for 850 locations by 2023.

Consider whether this option makes sense cost-wise, though. Securing a partnership is easier said than done in some situations, and for businesses without a ton of cash to throw around, massive inventory expansion might not be the best option. Start small, and see what your customers respond to before diving in headfirst.

This kind of experimentation and diversification is a great way to make sure both brands are still represented while expanding their inventories and customer bases—a welcome competitive edge that e-commerce can’t deliver as effectively. 

Deliver a totally connected experience

A connected retail experience offers an exciting physical experience that’s well-integrated with online shopping. So it’s all about the omnichannel experience—giving your customers the same level of service in every channel. They may start a transaction in your store but that’s not necessarily their final stop. And wherever that may be, there should be no interruption, it should be just as seamless as if they started and ended their shopping experience in your store.

Blending in-store and online experiences grants significantly more flexibility in how shoppers can buy and how your business can pivot its strategy to optimize returns. For example, shoppers can view your catalog online and reserve an item at their nearest location. This lets them ensure the product is available while still having the chance to physically experience the product before buying it. 

Thinking beyond the conventional retail dynamic is the trick to coming out of the pandemic ahead, too. 

Experiential Retail

Experiential retail is a concept that refocuses time spent in-store toward excitement rather than pushy salesmanship. It's about providing engaging experiences that showcase your brand and allows your customers to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and discover products organically removing the feeling of being “sold” to. This immersion is what encourages customers to spend hours inside a retail store rather than rushing in and out. And the longer someone spends in-store, the more likely they are to make a purchase.

Australian streetwear retailer Culture Kings takes experiential retail to a new level. In their retail locations, customers can get a  haircut, play basketball, play video games and stream video, all while being surrounded by their favorite products. This isn’t meant to distract consumers; it’s to make them enjoy the shopping process and therefore make them more likely to return.

Experiential retail is a big part of the connected experience as well. Private appointments or online consultations, where customers can book one-on-one interactions, add a level of exclusivity and help retailers abide by social distancing mandates. Brands like Gucci have even invested in augmented-reality technology to give their customers the chance to “try on” products without ever needing to step foot in a store. 

Dynamic Fulfillment

Another way to merge online and offline retail is through the creative use of physical store space and how it relates to fulfillment. Click and collect, one popular example of online-to-offline retail, lets shoppers reserve/purchase products online and then collect them in-store.

Physical retail space can also be used as a distribution center, from which products are actually shipped to the end customer. This is a great option to shorten shipping times and minimize overwhelming foot traffic. Take it a step further by letting customers track delivery in real time and you’ve got a connected retail strategy that will give your customers the service they’ve come to expect.

And you can minimize physical store space in favor of using a showroom. This strategy still gets customers through the door to experience the products, but it also relies on customers making purchases online that will eventually be shipped to their homes.

It’s all about flexibility and optimizing what works for your customers and your business. 

COVID-19 won’t be forgotten but brick and mortar can adapt

There’s no denying that the pandemic has transformed retail.

COVID-19’s lasting effects will continue shaping the shopping experience, contributing to innovation and impacting buyer behaviors and expectations. It’s up to brick-and-mortar sellers to seize the chance to offer an elevated experience compared with what is possible through e-commerce alone. 

Remember that being aware of the needs of your customers and engaging them across all touch points are the keys to winning customers back in 2021 and beyond. Happy selling!

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