While the pandemic has created short-term change, four principles spur development of long-term service offerings.
By Robyn Novak
COVID-19 has systematically altered the way consumers experience the world around them, evolving expectations of how they shop. Conveniences like buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup and returns are no longer perks — they are necessities.
E-commerce sales have grown significantly in recent years, and especially now that consumers are encouraged to stay at home more than usual. About 80% of shoppers expect to increase BOPIS and curbside pickup over the next six months, and 85% of shoppers have significantly increased curbside pickup since the pandemic began, according to a July and August survey of 2,510 U.S. shoppers. This monumental shift in consumer shopping behaviors will have long-term ramifications on the industry. Prior to COVID-19, non-traditional methods of pickup and returns weren’t widely accepted by consumers. More often, they were born out of a demand for convenience. However, as retail stores were forced to close their doors when the pandemic hit, businesses and consumers had to adapt to a new, safer shopping experience.
The growth of e-commerce, pandemic-related retail capacity limitations, and temporary store closures create opportunity for retailers and developers to transform underused space. Space can be transformed not only to meet consumer demands today, but to set the foundation for a brand’s prosperity in the future. These concepts, rooted in convenience and safety, may start out as short-term return and pickup concepts, but four principles will lead to long-term, experiential service offerings.
1 Leverage underutilized space. Whether it’s underutilized storefront parking, a mall with excess garage space, or a dark anchor with designated, unused parking, identify underutilized square footage and create a solution that activates the space. With fewer consumers going inside physical stores, increased use of ride-sharing services, and third-party deliveries, the demand for parking is shrinking, and transforming vacant parking spaces into prime real estate is pivotal. These spaces can easily be converted into a drive-up, pickup area offering automated lockers or fulfillment services. One particularly effective strategy is to repurpose a parking garage to offer a weather-proof solution to protect consumers and products.
Beyond BOPIS, these spaces also can be converted for micro-service centers, popups, cotenancies, and more. Reimagine and expand engagement and service for consumers. Whether it’s a new revenue driver or a seamless method for shoppers to drop off returns or pick up orders without going inside a crowded store, repurpose to bring value. Small investments can lead to big wins. Prefabricated shipping containers can be dropped in to create “shopping parks” or quick, one-stop centers for seasonal or must-have items for BOPIS and beyond.
Convert a partial row of parking spaces within an existing parking lot into a drive-up loading and pick-up area. IMAGE: COURTESY OF NELSON WORLDWIDE
2 Salute your brand’s purpose. The key to creating any successful brand extension is to make sure it’s relevant. The offering, approach, and design must be in line with your brand story to resonate with your audience. Even if it’s a short-term solution, it’s still a reflection of the brand and it must feel authentic to consumers. Consider your brand’s unique tone of voice, signature elements, and differentiated offerings to provide a meaningful connection with shoppers.
The rise in e-commerce and demand for convenient pickup and return options won’t go away, so what is implemented now must be able to endure and evolve post-pandemic. Poor execution can lead to a bad review with long-lasting damage. For instance, temporary sandwich boards and DIY window signs will hurt brand credibility and seem like an afterthought vs. an innovative, thoughtful solution. A professional, branded look will not only differentiate you from the competition, but give consumers a visual cue that their experience will be seamless; it can keep them coming back long after the pandemic is over.
3 Place service on a pedestal. Exceptional service and customer support will always be at the foundation of successful retail. Even with new, digital influences entering the marketplace, retailers must keep service at the forefront. Having a viable click-and-collect solution is nothing without service. Whether in-person or digitally operated, make these novel activations successful.
Support looks different depending on the type of retailer, offering, or development. A standalone click-and-collect box in an isolated parking lot may need a designated customer service representative. But for one directly connected to a store with plenty of in-person support nearby, a designated app might suffice. Determine what’s right for the activation and provide a thoughtful support model that fits.
As consumers become increasingly weary of communal screens and high touch, brands need to rely on the technology in consumers’ own pockets to provide product information and seamless support. Although technology can serve as the sole provider of customer support, people still value human interaction, and this gap in the shopping process is difficult to replace digitally. So consider what other service-based activations can be placed in these locations that could warrant in-person support. Beyond BOPIS, brands could offer micro-experiences like fitting rooms, tailoring services, meal kits, gifting, and more. The options for new models of convenience are endless.
4 Catalyze a unified customer journey. While service is critical to the larger customer journey, consider the holistic experience from start to finish to make a positive, lasting impression. Orchestrating a differentiated experience, even in a parking lot, is key to gaining repeat customers. Auto and foot traffic must be managed, wayfinding must be easy, and bottlenecks must be minimized. It starts with seamless communication long before consumers arrive on-site. Consumers must be aware of a perk before they can start to enjoy it, so consider promoting the new experience on the retailer and mall website, mobile app, and social media accounts. Communication, notifications, and status updates leading up to the experience can be accomplished through text messages, email, or preferably a dedicated app.
At the destination, confusion can be minimized and frustration solved immediately through clear signage. Consistent wayfinding from the second a consumer enters a shopping center is a key element of a successful, streamlined customer journey. Parking lot click-and-collect solutions should have dedicated lanes for dropping off vs. picking up; even dedicated entrances may be necessary for in-store click-and-collect models. It’s about integrating physical and digital touchpoints so that consumers know what to expect and what they need to do to accomplish the task at hand.
Convert a partial row of parking spaces within an existing garage into a drive-up loading and pick-up area. The garage can help provide weather protection, so infrastructure investment is minimal. IMAGE: COURTESY OF NELSON WORLDWIDE
Consumers are fluid and are constantly altering their preferences based on external factors, their own need states, and advancements in technology. To be successful, brands must function the same way. With the rise in e-commerce, and a global pandemic changing the way the world behaves, a demand lies in safe and convenient pickup and return options. Tomorrow, demand may change, and the concept must be flexible and nimble enough to evolve.
Robyn Novak is VP of NELSON Worldwide.