The Importance of Experiential Retail Post-Pandemic: 5 Trends for Retailers

The world has undergone a technical revolution in the last decade. The smartphones in our pockets have processing capabilities 100,000 times stronger than the computer that took Americans to the moon in 1969. We now exchange cryptocurrency and watch as AI programs do the work previously reserved for humans. The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the industries designed to thrive while simultaneously highlighting the industries that were never designed to withstand stay-at-home orders

Physical retail was always going to change; the pandemic simply expedited that process. Now, retailers are presented with a unique opportunity to adapt, and do so in truly exciting, innovative ways. Here are five post-pandemic retail trends to consider as you kick your growth plan into overdrive and aim to draw shoppers back into your stores. 

1. Provide Customers with an Experience

Customers need a good reason to put down their cellphones and pick up their car keys. That means that if customer engagement wasn’t your number-one priority before the pandemic, it should be now. 

Let’s take a look at Apple. The tech giant was already doing a lot of things right in its retail locations before the pandemic hit:

  • A sleek, crisp in-store design gave customers a visceral, visual experience the second they opened the door.
  • Visual displays add color, motion, and energy to Apple’s product marketing.
  • The company’s products—phones, tablets, and more—were available for testing, touching, and even taking pictures.
  • Apple’s “Genius bar” offered in-person troubleshooting for customers who needed a little extra help. 

Notice how each of these features has an interactive element that focuses on drawing the customer in. Any of these things would be enough to lean on post-pandemic. But now, Apple will be allowing for more in-store appointments at the Genius bar—a product of the pandemic that worked well—and resuming events like training courses and product tutorials. 

The result is a strategy that requires more feet to come through the door and gives back to the customer in the form of educational opportunities and added convenience.  

An Apple Store in Palo Alto
Photo: Apple 

Ask your team: How are we prioritizing and anticipating the customer’s needs? What opportunities are there to delight them? What worked during the pandemic that should stick around? Think creatively: how does sight, sound, touch, or even smell play a role? How can shopping be fun in your store? 

2. Tailor the Experience By Location

One forward-thinking concept that high-profile retailers embrace is creating unique experiences and design concepts for stores based on their location. Glossier, the DTC makeup brand, is reentering the retail scene with three flagship stores: one in Seattle, one in London, and one in Los Angeles. 

The catch: each location will be tailored to the area. The brand’s woodsy Seattle location, for example, will play “with the juxtaposition of nature and technology,” while London will mirror its original, highly successful pop-up design. Most importantly, says CEO Emily Weiss: “Each of these stores is designed… with a customer journey centered around self-discovery and belonging. People first, products second.” 

People first, products second. In a post-pandemic retail world, that’s the phrase that brick-and-mortar teams should be shouting from the rooftops. Lara Marrero, a retail practice leader at the design firm Gensler, echos Weiss’ strategy, telling Vox, “It’s no longer a rubber stamp from store to store. You’re starting to see a real different mix based on the patterns of purchase that are happening in a particular community, and that’s really going to help make brands more relevant.” 

3. Use Today’s Tech to Your Advantage

Integrating technology is the key to a smooth omnichannel retail strategy. We know that 82 percent of shoppers consult their phones before they make a purchase in-store. What if those customers were able to use QR Codes or apps to connect that research online to their final purchase when they hit your floor? 

The goal is to bring the digital experience to the physical retail space. To do that, consider using: 

  • QR Codes: These scannable codes are good for pretty much everything: encouraging shoppers to download apps to get better deals, providing cashless transactions, giving them additional information on a product, and more. But on the retailer’s side, they allow for tracking customer behavior before, during, or after a purchase that can later be used to help move them down the funnel.
  • Kiosks, AR, and interactive displays: In Google’s first retail location, the company uses an interactive display to show customers how its translation technology works. Paint company PPG has kiosks that allow shoppers to scan paint chips to see how colors might work in a space. ULTA’s virtual try-on beauty tool, an augmented reality tool that will enable shoppers to try makeup in the digital space, saw skyrocketing use during the pandemic. Using AR and interactivity can help elevate your brand’s core elements—and it gives shoppers a new reason to interact inside your store.
  • Live-streams and content creation: There’s also the option to rethink the purpose of your brick-and-mortar location altogether. Take Beautycounter’s new retail store. The front of the store has products, but in the back is a live-streaming studio that will broadcast creators straight from the location. Customers entering the store are “on-set” and can even ‘go live’ themselves. Beautycounter gets two-in-one benefits from this set-up: they get to sell their products and use content from the “Instagram Live generation” as free marketing material. 

4. Keep Safety Top of Mind

Given the last 18 months, retailers now have a firm grasp on the safety measures that should be put in place to protect their customers and their employees. Continuing to implement enhanced safety protocols not only builds trust in the eyes of the consumer but provides employees with a sense of safety and comfortability while working with the public.

Here are a handful of ways retailers are prioritizing safety post-pandemic:

  • They are establishing contingency plans. Retailers are now considering the strategy required to maintain profitability should we face another crisis. Intelligent retailers will consider the pivots required of them and the concepts to include in their stores to mitigate potential problems.
  • They are adding modern safety features like contactless sinks, paper towel dispensers, and touchless doors.
  • They are investing in contactless pay systems like PayPal or Apple Pay to the checkout process.
  • They are setting up permanent hand sanitizing dispensers around stores.

5. Lean into eCommerce Convenience

Although retail sales went up 23% in May and another 14% in June of 2021 (meaning customers are starting to feel more comfortable taking their shopping in-store), the convenience that omnichannel retail and online shopping provide is hard to beat. Stores leveraging BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) have seen massive success during the pandemic, and that’s not going away anytime soon. 56% of shoppers plan to continue using BOPIS after the pandemic. Why? For many of those BOPIS users, the draw is to counter shipping fees and get their items sooner. 

In-Store Locker Pickup at a Home Depot Location
Photo: Home Depot

Some high-profile retailers are taking their BOPIS strategies one step further, as retailers like ULTA are renegotiating their leases to add more parking spots for curbside pick-up, a sign that some of the larger players in the game are recognizing the value in giving the customer the power. Gone are the days of focusing on the sale; now, stores focus on the experience, giving customers the ability to choose how they interact with the brand. 

Need help? Our retail experts are here to help. 

The pandemic has pushed retailers to innovate and adapt to their customer’s needs and wants. We encourage you to get in touch with our team of dedicated retail experts for more on experiential retail, creating interactive retail displays, and navigating the retail landscape post-pandemic.

June 28, 2021