Even as states begin reopening their economies, it’s safe to assume that retail stores will not be flooded with customers anytime soon. A recent survey from Coresight Research showed that two-thirds of consumers plan to continue avoiding public places after restrictions end with shopping centers top on the list of places they won’t go.

But change isn’t all bad. According to Bluecore research, online sales in every retail vertical increased in April 2020 compared to both April 2019 and the weeks leading up to shelter-in-place orders in February 2020. Consumers may not be visiting many stores in person, but they’re having orders shipped from online retailers, buying online and picking up in-store, and taking advantage of curbside pickup.

Retail employee helping a customer while with social distancing and PPE

And just as those shopping habits may extend past stay-at-home orders, coronavirus may shift other consumer behaviors going forward. In recent years, people have owned fewer assets and focused more on services like ride-sharing and bike-sharing. But in the interest of health and safety, “people who live through this period will value what they own and their stuff a lot more,” says Chris Palmer, CEO and founder of consumer product brand advisory SupplyKick. “This will impact retailers of all kinds as buying patterns shift.”

As those buying patterns change and consumers’ expectations shift, savvy retailers can take steps to drive sales and better serve customers in the new retail environment. In this article, we cover a few ways they can do it.

Embrace Local Online Sales

Online demand is growing in almost every retail sector, according to Bluecore research. Online apparel sales saw a 20% increase year-over-year and a 27% increase since February, while online sports and outdoor product sales grew 45% year-over-year. And researchers found well over 100% increases in online sales of pharmacy and beauty products year-over-year.

Local retailers that prepare to accommodate shoppers’ preferences for buying online can capitalize on that demand. In a recent survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, 25% of respondents indicated that they are now shopping more often at locally owned stores and buying more locally made, grown, or sourced products.

Shopper browsing clothing in-store with a face mask

Retailers that don’t yet offer an option for online shopping should start developing one now. “The new normal will be a higher adoption rate for e-commerce shopping, a trend that will continue far beyond this crisis,” says Palmer.

Reach Online Customers WITH curbside pickup

Local retailers have an advantage over other online stores because they can offer
same-day delivery or pickup. These local shops can and should ramp up their buy online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) initiatives and curbside pickup service. Because they fit neatly in one parking space, PODS containers can be ideal for storing items outdoors for easy retrieval when customers arrive to pick up items.

PODS container in a parking lot loaded with inventory for curbside pickup

Retailers can also leverage this shift toward online shopping to start selling on a larger e-commerce platform such as Amazon or Walmart Marketplace to reach consumers beyond their own community. Pandemic-related supply chain difficulties have made these e-commerce giants even more reliant on smaller, third-party sellers.

“Third-parties provide a deeper supply than if Amazon was solely a first-party seller,” Palmer says. “Without third parties, Amazon would be much more exposed during this situation.”

Build Inventory to Meet Current Needs

The pandemic has led to widespread unemployment and economic uncertainty, which is likely to affect consumers’ appetite for luxury goods and other nonessentials. But retailers may find success by tweaking their inventories to meet specific needs.

For instance, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, craft spirits distilleries started making hand sanitizers to help meet skyrocketing demand. Retailers that don’t normally stock sanitizers, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper may be able to better serve their customers by adding these items to inventory.

Hand sanitizer bottle in a shopping center

Products that could remain high-demand as consumers remain cautious after stay-at-home orders lift include face masks, home electronics to facilitate working from home, outdoor toys and activities to entertain children, baking supplies, and crafting materials.

Consider partnering with neighboring businesses that can fulfill customers’ needs for items you don’t stock. If you decide to expand your inventory, portable storage
containers can help store and organize those additional items.

Help In-store Shoppers Feel Safe

While consumers will continue to shop online or do curbside pickup, many will gradually return to store locations. To help shoppers feel safe when they return, retailers must implement visible health and safety precautions throughout the store. Those basic precautions should include:

  • Limiting the number of shoppers in the store at the same time
  • Marking spaces for people to stand at least six feet apart
  • Encouraging customers to wear masks
  • Requiring employees to wear masks
  • Making contactless hand sanitizer stations available

Some retailers are leveraging technology to incorporate even more safety measures. In store heat maps, for example, can alert store managers when clusters of people are forming.

Retailers can also offer more contactless payment options, such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. Almost 40% of consumers in the IBM study said after COVID-19, they are likely to use contactless payment options via their mobile device or credit card.

Social distancing floor sticker for shoppers in-store and for curbside pickup

Finally, retailers can get creative to ensure customers’ safety and willingness to return to the brick and mortar store. For instance, digital media company January Digital is working with brands like David’s Bridal to help create personal shopping and curating experiences online before the consumers come into the store. After initial online browsing and interactions, customers can walk into a store and find a dressing room curated just for them. They can then make their decisions, make a contactless payment, and leave with their items.

The retail environment may be changing, but it’s full of opportunities for local businesses. By offering new online and in-store services, retailers can show customers that they are committed to providing safe, healthy, and memorable shopping experiences through curbside pickup service and other creative methods. For retailers needing additional storage space to expand into these innovative service offerings, PODS can provide custom solutions to help. Learn more about how we support retailers.

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