With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to evolve each day, many businesses are struggling to keep up with the latest public health guidelines. Today, owning or managing a retail business looks a lot different than it did even a year ago. And it's made even more difficult because some restrictions differ from location to location.

After more than a year of operating under uncertain conditions, you may not have had time to fully take stock of the long-term industry changes that were happening in the background.

Here’s our rundown on four pandemic-era retail facilities trends that are likely to remain permanent fixtures of the industry—what you can expect, and how you can prepare.

Last-mile delivery

Under the pandemic, online shopping through large retail players grew substantially, accelerating the pace of e-commerce adoption by an estimated five years.

But it’s not just the retail giants enjoying the consequences of this shift. There’s enormous opportunity for local and regional retailers to strengthen their presence in this new and changing landscape.

What fueled retail growth throughout the coronavirus pandemic—and what will continue to fuel retail into the coming months and years—is a greater focus on convenience.

Apart from the greater convenience and selection of shopping online, customers have come to expect even shorter delivery times.

Recent data shows that nearly 40 percent of e-commerce customers abandoned their online shopping carts because delivery times were too long.

And on the other side of the coin, it was found that nearly 90 percent of consumers would prefer to pay for faster delivery.

These preferences are here to stay. Consumer research suggests that as much as 40 percent of all items delivered in 2028 will arrive within just two hours of the customer’s order confirmation.

To accommodate for these changing preferences, many retail operators are converting a portion of their store spaces to act as fulfillment centers to help cover the so-called “last mile” en route to the customer.

Modifying your retail facilities to better accommodate changing customer preferences will help ensure lasting customer trust and overall brand competitiveness.

Curbside pickup

Though most Americans say that they’re eager to walk through the doors of their favorite brick-and-mortar retail establishments, as many as 40 percent of consumers say they’re going to continue primarily shopping online.

Curbside pickup offered American consumers a hybrid option.

Powered by store websites or mobile apps, customers can shop online at home or using a store’s mobile app, then drive to a nearby store location and pick up their order outside the store, limiting overall contact.

While useful throughout pandemic restrictions, curbside order pickup is poised to remain a staple of the overall retail experience even after the pandemic more fully subsides.

In the first quarter of 2020, a study found that 59 percent of consumers reported that they’d continue to use curbside pickup post-pandemic. Today, that number is closer to 70 percent.

Curbside pickup reduces the overall cost of retail orders to consumers, reduces overall transaction completion times, and can help improve the in-store customer experience by freeing up more time for associates to focus on customer needs.

To make the most of your retail locations in light of the growing preference for pickup options, plan ahead. Consider options for signage, parking lot paint, and even landscaping modifications.

Curbside (and in-store) pickup is already an integral part of the retail customer experience. The way you manage the facilities that support those experiences will help determine future brand success—especially as we witness the evolving role of the brick-and-mortar retail destination.

Flexible staffing plans

Though retail customers are eagerly flocking to businesses sporting looser capacity and social distancing restrictions, owners and operators are finding it challenging to properly staff their locations.

In January 2021, just one-third of the nation’s retailers said they were adequately staffed to properly handle customer expectations.

The reason is clear.

For many longtime retail workers, threats to personal safety and job security throughout the coronavirus pandemic were positive signs to find what they considered to be safer, more stable sources of employment.

With the pandemic subsiding, many industry veterans have opted not to return to retail—contributing to a staff turnover trend that has already troubled retail operators in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Retail staff turnover can cost owners and operators thousands of dollars for every employee lost. To combat these costs and other uncertainties, store operators will need to take a proactive approach to staffing in the months—and possibly years—to come. 

Maintaining core retail staff is essential to a positive, affirming customer experience. Your core staff are the most experienced, the most knowledgeable, and the best-equipped to go the extra mile for your customers.

To prepare, retailers can cross-train staff in essential store functions, leverage current employees for trusted referrals, source and train dedicated on-call staff for sudden needs, and boost core staff retention by incentivizing tenure.

Enhanced sanitation

Even with the pandemic moving out of focus for so many retail customers throughout the country, customer concerns about store cleanliness and safety remain at the fore.

Around this time last year, more than 60 percent of survey respondents said that store cleanliness would be a deciding factor in their choice to return.

But today, retailers themselves are betting on pandemic-era cleanliness as the new customer expectation: 70 percent of retailers surveyed said that enhanced sanitation would become part of the new normal.

Though the public’s general anxiety appears to have fallen since late last year, a substantial percentage of retail customers are still a bit nervous about shopping in crowds.

And though customers continued to use public restroom facilities in stores and other places of business, research shows that 70 percent of retail-goers are more likely to return to a business if restroom facilities were touchless models.

Additional research indicates that retail customers would even be willing to spend more with businesses they perceived as paying more attention to health and safety.

At the end of the day, retail customers do business with companies they believe have their best interests at heart, and not only their bottom lines. Maintaining strong sanitation procedures will remain key long after the pandemic subsides.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the retail industry to the core. Many local and regional businesses struggled to remain afloat, and even larger, established brands took a hit as federal and local health guidelines kept consumers indoors and largely away from public gatherings. As the pandemic continues to evolve, your store’s facilities will be more important than ever. Why not work with a trusted partner that really understands your business, your company’s vision, and your unique goals? Get in touch to learn more: weknowFM@smsassist.com.

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