How modern retail should respond to Covid-19

Updated: Jun 19, 2020 8:16 AM

Newly introduced industry-standard queuing systems and increased store cleaning regimes can’t be considered as unique selling points

Creating an ownable and unique retail experience should be top of mind on any given dayCreating an ownable and unique retail experience should be top of mind on any given day

By Dominic Twyford

Retail in India has always been a lively affair. The act of shopping is generally an exciting event, and often family focussed, with consumers keen to touch and feel products, and engage with store staff.

While these activities have been absent for the past three months, June 8 represented a significant milestone with shopping malls opening again in safe zones. Naturally, this will provide retailers with a significant boost, but does it mean the sector will return to ‘business as usual’?

New behaviours

For weeks, the thinking of India’s consumers has been reconditioned, and behaviours have seen remarkable shifts. Carefree shopping has now been dampened with concerns about social distancing and safety.

For many, the desire to spend has been curtailed by economic uncertainty. For those who can, home confinement has boosted buying online. A quick look on Swiggy shows that a host of major FMCG players, physical grocery stores and planning, with the absence of choice, new consumer behaviours have been even more niche retailers have entered the online space.

While this might have been out of necessity, rather than long-term strategic planning, with the absence of choice, new consumer behaviours have been established.

Just precaution is not enough. India’s fondness for retail sales will only do so much in luring back shoppers. Newly introduced industry-standard queuing systems and increased store cleaning regimes can’t be considered as unique selling points.

Faced with less customers, but the same amount of competition, India’s retailers need to re-examine their place in a post-pandemic world. Proper precaution is a must have, but one has to go beyond.

Opening up

Creating an ownable and unique retail experience should be top of mind on any given day; recent events mean this has become more crucial. Equally, retailer responses should be viewed through the lens of the brand.

The requirement is more than just ‘restarting’ operations. Retailers need to consider the need for a fundamental ‘restage’. Retailers have to create places where people want to be; the desire that they create in consumers must make their physical stores preferable to other options — whether they be competitor stores or online channels.

As a starting point, there are three vitally important necessities that retailers can flip into opportunities that will help restage their brands.

Display empathy and generosity: Covid-19 represents, perhaps, the first global experience that has affected us all. If retailers continue as normal, they will appear disconnected and out of touch. Displaying empathy and generosity (of spirit rather than discounts) will be more important than ever.

Improve service: The human dimension of face-to-face contact can’t be replicated online. People crave human contact, now more than ever, and retailers should be doubling down on useful, authentic service rituals.

Also, if social distancing continues, brands need to own it, because queuing is a perpetual problem in retail. Taking a leaf from the online grocery playbook, can pre-booked time slots translate to store visits? It would solve the problem of overcrowding, and elevate the retail experience by establishing a more personalised, consultative and solution-based service experience.

Create emotional peaks: Finally, retailers need to trigger excitement and think more like film directors to create emotional ‘peaks’ within the customer journey. It’s high time that retail experiences moved the needle from consistently good to extraordinary. Done well, this approach displaces competition and leaves customers with powerful memories.

The context has changed, the need is more pressing, but the challenge is familiar — give customers compelling reasons to visit your stores. Now is the time to introspect, act and restage.

The author is business director at Fitch, India

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