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Stores across the globe are beginning to reopen in the immediate wake of the COVID-19 outbreak – with luxury companies and mass-market mall brands, alike, looking to grant consumers access to their physical outposts. Foot traffic to stores in the U.S. and Canada is starting to rise, albeit slowly. “For the week ended May 15, foot traffic to shops was 92 percent below the same period a year ago, compared with a 95 percent falloff in the previous seven days,” according to Bloomberg

The gradual return to activities like shopping and dining out may come as a welcome relief from individuals in cities where opening up is in effect, and for the retail and hospitality industries, among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the return to trading could not come fast enough, the return to business as usual is likely still quite a way off, as the new economic reality will have a profound impact on retail. Some of the routines developed during lockdown, such as cooking and baking at home or foregoing daily takeaway coffees, may continue post-pandemic if money is tight.

Shopping as a sensory experience will change

More than merely holding back on normal pre-COVID spending in light of rising unemployment and market uncertainty, retail is likely to be shaken significantly for the foreseeable future from a practical perspective. From social distancing mandates and Plexiglas dividers in stores to mandatory mask rules, retail reality will inevitably different. And beyond heightened hygiene rules, customers are also likely to notice a marked absence of certain favorite experiential elements. 

Is a trip to Sephora as enjoyable when you cannot sample the products? Will the air in stores mirror that of Abercrombie & Fitch in the mid-2000s? Except instead of the strong scent of cologne, it will be the smell of disinfectant? 

While the scent of a retail outlet may seem trivial, as consumers, our senses play a major role in how much we enjoy retail experiences. Retailers have long employed the art of store atmospherics to encourage us to stay and spend. Atmospherics, such as scent, music, touch, temperature and crowding, all help create an engaging sensory experience for shoppers and patrons. 

Research suggests customers will stay longer, spend more, feel better, and be more satisfied in a retail environment they find pleasing to their senses. That is why companies like Prolitec, an “ambient scenting” company, which “releases signature smells into the air of hotels and retail stores–110,000 in countries around the world,” according to Fast Co., are big business. 

In 2016, Prolitec CEO Richard Weening predicted that the retail ambiance industry was slated for “strong 10-year growth” in terms of revenues. “It’s about to, I won’t say explode, but become a lot more meaningful.” The new COVID-19 environment has potentially, to a large extent, made considerations of in-store experiences more important than ever before.

Don’t touch

As stores begin to slowly reopen (if stores are actually reopening in light of a larger trend towards permanent brick-and-mortar closures), retail-specific safety recommendations are being put forth by government entities, trade organizations, and companies throughout the world. Retail guidelines in New Zealand, for instance, recommend that consumers only touch and try on merchandise they intend to buy. In the U.S., no touch retailing seems increasingly likely. 

American Eagle has released a 65-page employee handbook, “including how to fold jeans and t-shirts in order to allow shoppers to examine them in detail without touching them,” the Washington Post recently reported. Meanwhile, “’No touch’ consultations will be the rule at beauty counters,” according to the New York Times

Such measures confound conventional retail theory, which suggests the more consumers touch, sort through, sample and try on, the more they are likely to buy. The removal of testers for products such as cosmetics and fragrances, for example, significantly changes the shopping experience.

Don’t stand so close to me

Retailers in countries entering winter will also need to think quite literally about the atmosphere in their stores. Warmer temperatures tend to create a relaxing environment that encourages shoppers to linger. And physical warmth can even enhance the perceived value of products. But poorly ventilated or air-conditioned indoor spaces have been identified as potential hot spots for the spread of COVID-19. 

Will warmer stores subconsciously affect the way shoppers react? Restaurateurs and retailers will be hoping not. 

Paradoxically, the advice to keep our distance in public can lead to perceived crowding – a psychological state based on the number of individuals in a store, the extent of social interactions and the configuration of merchandise and fixtures. Higher levels of perceived crowding can lead to less positive emotions and decreased satisfaction.

Ultimately, if retailers and hospitality service providers want customers to return in greater numbers the goal will be to minimize the perceived risks of infection, and also managing the emotional component of the retail experience, which will become an even more crucial part of the overall value offered. 

“It falls to the retailers to figure out how to create a socially distanced experience that makes the trip worth the inconvenience and the risk,” Simeon Siegel, a managing director at BMO Capital Markets who covers retail and e-commerce, told the Times. 

How readily customers become comfortable with the etiquette of post-pandemic shopping will dictate how effectively retail and hospitality can provide that vital sense of well-being. In time, the words “retail” and “therapy” may again sit comfortably in the same sentence. 

Jessica Vredenburg is an Assistant Professor in Marketing at the Auckland University of Technology. Megan Philips is an Assistant Professor in Retailing at the Auckland University of Technology. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL).