Provider Strategy

COVID-19 and the Future of Retail

What can providers expect during and after the pandemic?

It’s no secret that circumstances over the last six to nine months are forcing business owners to reevaluate and make changes to their once normal operational strategies. To thrive in our new normal, we must shed our traditional sense of retail and reimagine the future of our brick-n-mortar store. What rises from this crisis is up to us.

Let’s look at some of the strategies that business owners are putting into motion now and as they move forward into the future:

Curbside Pickup and Delivery

One of the first pieces that almost everyone had to incorporate immediately was to offer curbside pickup and home delivery to their customers. Most providers, if not all, had some form of home delivery built into their daily or weekly operational strategy when assisting their customer base. But for the most part, curbside pickup has been a completely new element of service and one that has been utilized more than expected. Our customers were forced to change their shopping habits literally overnight. They were now being told they couldn’t go into their favorite retail stores or, worse yet, their favorite retail store was closed. Thankfully, because HME providers are in business to help others, they transitioned from face-to-face orders to phone orders in a matter of seconds, serving their customers just like they did before, but now adding the option of delivery or curbside pickup.

Even now that some of the restrictions are being lifted, many customers either still don’t feel comfortable coming back in or have found that their new means of shopping works better and is more convenient for them than physically coming into the store. According to Podium (podium.com), which provides a customer messaging platform, the overwhelming majority of Americans have used curbside pickup and local delivery services (84 percent) and expect local businesses to continue offering them (86 percent).

Bring Your Storefronts and Exteriors Alive

The next strategy that correlates to your customers doing more curbside pickup is the strategy of bringing your storefronts and exteriors alive. This space is now what the majority of your customers will see either as they drive or walk by or as they drive up and await their order that is being taken out to them. Merchandise your front windows like you would on the sales floor. It allows these customers who chose to shop outside the same feeling and opportunity as if they were in the store with you. Make sure to set aside the closest parking spaces available to those windows for those who choose to stay outside and use curbside pickup. The window space can be small and not ideal for displaying items, but be creative with how and what you display, making sure to change it regularly to give customers a different look and idea of everything you carry. Look for payment options that allow these customers the opportunity to pay over the phone with a credit card so there’s no need to exchange cash or card.

Evaluate How Physical Store Space Is Used

The next element to evaluate is the way we use our physical store space. While fewer customers are coming in, customer expectations are higher in terms of health and safety measures. Our stores need to be more generously spaced out and our staff must be trained on how to make every guest feel safe and comfortable. Do this by creating larger gaps between displays, products, and fixtures all while showing empathy and awareness around their health and safety. Provide a sanitization station at the front of your store so shoppers can easily sanitize their hands before touching anything. According to a study conducted by Salesforce (salesforce.com), shoppers of all generations—particularly those in the 40+ group—expect stores to enforce mandatory social distancing and PPE policies. Give consumer’s confidence to shop your store and evaluate your store’s stance on cleaning measures, store traffic maximums, social distancing, and contactless delivery methods.

The CDC is a great resource for all social distancing guidelines. Our experts in VGM & Associates have also released three new resources to help our members navigate the new business climate post-PHE. These resources include a guide to technology with a focus on telehealth, a remote working guide to help if you decide that some sort of virtual working environment is at your company to stay, and a re-opening checklist to help businesses prepare for the new environment. All of these playbooks can be found at vgm.com/playbook.

E-Commerce

The last element to evaluate is your e-commerce platform: (a) do you have one and (b) if so, does it reflect your store branding and show everything you have to offer? The fact of the matter is, not everyone feels comfortable shopping in stores. In a survey conducted by augmented reality company Vertebrae (vertebrae.com), they found that one out of every two shoppers (48 percent) still do not believe it’s safe to shop in stores. I believe it’s going to be quite some time before consumers feel comfortable again, especially those deemed high-risk or ages 65 and older.

However, younger consumers are also relishing in the contactless purchase options. Think of your e-commerce as if it’s your store. What’s our first instinct when we need something? It’s to pick up our phone or go online and research it. Many providers don’t have an e-commerce platform; a good number of providers who do have e-commerce do not consider it as part of their daily strategy. For those providers who don’t have an e-commerce platform, I would consider incorporating one very soon. It would add another way to meet your customer’s needs directly. For those providers who have e-commerce but don’t know the last time it was updated or maintained, I would recommend making it a daily or, at the very least, a weekly strategy. By reviewing it daily or weekly, you are making sure all of the essential items you carry are as visible as possible to those customers looking for them. Here are some direct benefits of an e-commerce platform:

  1. Fast Go-to-Market Strategy
  2. Low Cost to Set Up
  3. Shoppers Often Start Online
  4. Ability to Reach New Customers
  5. Meeting Customers Where They Are

The writing is on the wall, and those who are innovative and willing to adjust in these hard times will survive, and their business will be stronger long term because of it.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Rob Baumhover, director of retail programs with VGM & Associates (Waterloo, Iowa; www.vgm.com), which assists VGM members to diversify their HME businesses through improved retail operations.

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