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Has the pandemic spurned the end of experiential retailing?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

22 May 2020

Has the pandemic spurned the end of experiential retailing? To go shopping means waiting in tedious queues due to the limits of in-store visitors and having your temperature checked once inside (see Apple). Floors marked with yellow and black sticker tape remind us we must keep our distance from others. What if someone in close proximity sneezes? We follow direction arrows because in-store traffic is now routed one-way only. Vast tubs of hand sanitizer welcome you upon entry, along with a list of ‘tips’ for how to avoid contracting Covid-19. Masked and gloved staff patrol the aisles to ensure customers abide by the rules. And the most off-putting of all, giant sheets of plastic dangling between you and a cashier at the tills. All the joy has been seeped out of shopping.

The new shopping reality

As retail reawakens after weeks of forced closures, the impetus to shop – and hang about in stores the way we used to – has vanished. The high street, and retail in particular, is no longer the thread of our social fabric. Even the term experiential retail – the innovative means for stores to attract, keep, grow and entertain customers – is obsolete. Grab-and-go shopping is what most of us aim to do, and not just in supermarkets.

No longer are we looking for retailers to entertain us and neither do stores want customers to linger. Shop floors are cleverly merchandised so items can be easily found and bought. Everything is in place to fast track the customer journey from entry to exit. Forget installations or creative pop-ups to engage us. Or hearing your favourite song over a loudspeaker at a nicely audible level to entice you to browse a little longer.

As little as three months ago marketers wouldn’t have been wrong to say consumers desire more than simply purchasing goods, they value experiences. But the shift to digital in a pandemic means bricks and mortar must provide safer, faster and easier shopping experiences.

Safer, faster and easier shopping experiences

Perhaps it’s the coronavirus reminders everywhere, but retailers no longer want customers to linger and stay. Sephora has banned product tests. The Gap has closed fitting rooms and customer toilets, Jewellery stores are sanitizing each item after being tried on. According to the Washington Post even clothes are folded differently, to encourage hands-off browsing.

Retailers have spent years adding interactive displays, sample stations, even rock-climbing walls and full-service cafes and bars to their stores in hopes of offering shoppers an experience they can’t get online, wrote the Washington Post. But analysts say many of those efforts are now impractical or unsafe, requiring an overhaul that could ultimately make the shopping experience less enjoyable and further cut into an already weak retail environment.

Retailers are tied to new protocols and must do everything they can to make stores safe for customers. But they must also install new ways of not making shopping feel like a clinical transaction and forgoing connection. For that we have online.

Image via the Gap blog