A storefront with a sign outside on social distancing guidelines. - brick and mortar concept
PHOTO: Adobe

Consumer behavior shifted in 2020. While many brands would have expected ecommerce to grow in popularity, no one could have imagined the necessity it would become during the pandemic. 

However, despite the uncertainty of when things will return to normal, a recent survey conducted by Allocadia indicates that 33% of consumers will do shopping online, 27% will do shopping in-store, and 40% say they will use both venues. 

So, despite Statista’s prediction that ecommerce sales will reach $407B in 2021, buyers aren’t expected to stop shopping in physical stores. 

Given this data, we spoke to experts to understand the measures store owners are taking to welcome shoppers back, the changes they’ve made in the meantime to cope with limited foot traffic, and what this will mean for the future of physical stores.  

The Future of Shopping

The concept of omnichannel is associated with publishing content and creating a cohesive user experience across multiple channels. This cohesive experience enables brands to improve customer relationships and drive more sales. According to Howard Meitiner, Managing Director at NYC-based Carl Marks Advisors, brick and mortar brands will need to focus on the experience aspect from now on as they welcome customers back. 

“Smart retailers have been implementing a number of measures to welcome customers back into stores, including visible hygiene procedures, temperature checks, posted cleaning protocols, and all staffers wearing PPE,” added Meitiner.

With social distancing and proper hygiene still top of mind for many customers, brands have also been digitizing their information and implementing things like QR codes to make life easier. 

Two worlds are expected to combine as brands add a digital component to their physical stores to improve the customer’s omnichannel experience. However, creating an experience for customers doesn’t only mean integrating digital; it also means improving the in-store experience. 

“Shoppers have shown that they’re willing to wait in line outside of a store to reduce crowding, and retailers will begin to think of ways to improve the experience of waiting in line outside. At the Trader Joe’s near me, for example, they have quizzes on the windows to help distract shoppers while they’re waiting,” points out Jared Blank, Chief Marketing Officer at eCommerce marketplace platform VTEX

Related Article: Omnichannel Retail Hit the Tipping Point This Holiday Season

Is a Return To Normalcy in the Cards?

While creating a new experience for customers who want to shop in physical stores is an excellent tactic, brands are also wondering if things will return to normal levels soon. 

Blank believes that will depend upon if consumers have the funds to purchase items in store. “We saw over the summer that retail sales picked up when consumers were flush with cash from the first stimulus,” said Blank. 

Economic stability and the implementation of vaccines will be the ultimate deciding factors for when we’ll see shopping malls and stores filling up with people once again. However, Meitiner believes that changes will characterize the future of retail. There must be “a timely response to changes in consumer behavior and the different priorities of every age group, from Gen Z to Baby Boomers,” Meitiner pointed out. 

As a result, brands will need to prepare for disruption and be adaptable regardless of what happens in 2021. Many brands were caught lacking in their preparation for a digital future in the year 2020. They will need to be aware of new technologies and implement them as required if they want to avoid crumbling before normalcy does resume. 

Accelerating a Shift To Digital 

When the pandemic first appeared, many brands coped by shifting their business models to digital channels and Blank expanded on how things unfolded for many of the customers they serve. 

In the beginning stages, there was much shock and uncertainty about what would happen. Soon after, however, “they realized that the shift to digital that everyone has been talking about for years is going to happen in a matter of weeks, rather than over the next 10 years, so those retailers that could afford to invest in it shifted their resources to building out their digital infrastructure,” Blank claimed. 

Even as brands prepare for customers to return to stores, it must be understood that “the retail industry has taken advantage of the pandemic to accelerate much-needed changes and innovations in everything from operations, marketing, supply chain, and technology,” pointed out Meitiner. 

Brick and mortar stores aren’t going away anytime soon, despite a slowdown in customer traffic, and brands will need to devise new ways to encourage spending and boost shopper confidence.

Marrying the physical presence with the digital experience, being aware of changing buyer habits, and implementing the right digital infrastructure to meet buyers where they are will be crucial going forward. Through these things, brick and mortar stores can encourage shoppers to return to stores and create an improved customer experience.