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Technological and (re)socialised: a sure bet for retailers?

Right now, French stores reopened their doors, managing social distancing restrictions. Let’s analyse what this extraordinary time has changed in terms of customer behaviours and, while it is already agreed that the post-lockdown period will be a “new normal”, how these changes will continue to influence the situation.

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Adaptation which re-examines the question of customer requirements

The lockdown period had a major impact on in-store traffic, due to travel restrictions. Some local stores, particularly in the food sector, quickly became destinations for purchases that appeared to be more essential than ever.

The most notable feature to be observed, in particular in the USA and China, is that customers reassessed their favourite store according to judgements which not only favour the distance from their homes: freshness of products, reliability of stock announced, quality of delivery or order collection service, easy ordering procedure on-line or in-app. In the space of a few weeks, all these criteria became priority requirements at a time when, out of necessity, purchases became less frequent, and therefore more rationalised. 

Reasoned consumerism, which reconsiders purchasing pathways and priority expenditure, will definitely continue this process of self-examination in the post-lockdown world. Polls in North America show that 67% of consumers claim they will purchase less clothing in the future.

Will this re-examination devalue brand’s physical points of sale? This is one of their main fears at the moment, particularly when customers have started to purchase on-line what was conventionally popular in stores. Various analyses believe this shift in behaviour to be a long-term fixture and predict a 6% increase in on-line retail, and up to 13% in the ready-made clothing sector. This is a recurring question: how can customers be attracted back to stores when they quickly got used to remote shopping over three months of lockdown? Which trends appear reliable, and which part of the model must be changed?

Consumers are social beings

We must first of all remember that trade has a social function: through our purchases, we take part in a form of accomplishment and identity building which is necessary for our deep need to belong. This may be aligned, for example, to our social class, culture or our beliefs. The store is a place for connections, encounters and exchanges. Going into a store is a form of socialisation.

The trends which emerged during lockdown (massive adoption of drive-through shopping, widespread click&collect, including in reluctant sectors, a need for transparency and proximity, etc.) do not only reveal a mere need for reassurance in a period of uncertainty, they also strengthen the idea of resocialisation in which customers can feel closer to the producer or distributor. By reconsidering the intrinsic worth of local shopping and an appetite for new, more authentic formats on a human scale, customers are giving meaning to their purchases once again. They bring a new form of balance, between ease and accomplishment, comfort and ethics. It is within this balance of resocialisation that the point of sale must now situate itself.

The concept of proximity could be redesigned, for example in high-density areas. Demand for bicycle rentals and sales are growing in these areas, which points to changes in the concepts of journeys and what is local, through which places of transition and destination would be supported. We could imagine multi-modal drive-through systems in which it is possible to collect a basket of fresh produce prepared by a local producer and books ordered the day before from the local bookstore without leaving the car; a balance between efficacy and encounter, in which the customer can optimise their time more effectively.

Changing stores and taking gambles on long-term trends

The conventional space of staged storage must therefore give way to new experimental models with a greater level of authenticity. This shift in physical outlets is not yet fully complete everywhere, and yet it is the condition under which the aforementioned balance will be able to find its place. Technology will be a key ally, provided that it is actually useful and not a gadget.

The robust short-term trends, including clienteling tools intended to support the sales representative in the sale and in the value of personalised advice, have become essential. Points of sale which succeed in making customers, rather than products, the focal point with this type of technology are recording the best results. Like certain American bookstore networks, wrongly considered moribund in view of the fierce competition from major on-line marketplaces.

Another trend which experienced an upsurge during lockdown was that of a store within a store. Corners, physical marketplaces or a reinvention of the market for the mass food retail sector are ways of redesigning the placement strategy. Technological support will be necessary for a seamless experience, regarding loyalty and customisation issues and movements from one space to another.

Collection points, whether in-store or off-site, are among the most anticipated services. E-bookings, drive-through and walk-in collections, collection lockers, etc. All these concepts have the common feature of combining the responsiveness of digital technology and the upkeep of social cohesion. Collection procedures must be simple and quick if they are to stay in line with the practical nature of on-line ordering.

Self-service tools (automatic checkouts, scan & go, etc.) are also flying high. Positioned wisely in the shopping pathway, they satisfy 21st-century customers who are efficient and looking for autonomy.

How can the payment method strategy be adapted?

At the heart of these changes, the payment system must be taken into account. Many technical solutions are currently available to redesign your pathways:

The array of omnichannel products: this set of tools (click & collect, web-in-store, e-booking, etc.), by bringing digital technology into the store, (re)places payment at the centre of pathways. Regardless of the starting, finishing or transition points, it is an intrinsic part of the act of purchasing.
The development of contactless payments: with a ceiling increased to €50, contactless payments have a bright future, particularly among local merchants. For those who wish to do away with the checkout phase, there are tap-on-phone or scan & pay app solutions. However, where checkouts remain necessary points of contact, for example for perfume stores and their strategic distribution of samples, payments by QR code are preferable.
The smart UX: massive investments in digital technology have undeniably improved performance in terms of smoothness and practicality, yet the drawback is the impersonal image of the machine which must also be resocialised. Payments that react to the emotional profile of the customer, adapting the display to the specific needs for reassurance of each type of person, personalises the digital purchasing experience and gives it meaning and authenticity.
Arrondi solidaire (rounding up purchase amounts): looking for a commitment, customers are more likely than ever to be moved by this approach, whether or not they are new to solidarity initiatives. Merchants who appear to be responsible and concerned remove inhibitions from purchases which may be perceived as non-priority or unethical.

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