The retail industry has faced many challenges because of the pandemic. This has given rise to many innovative ideas to reinvent the store of the future. Retailers are looking for creative ways to maximise their investments in physical stores.
This refers to the trend of retailers leveraging the social media presence of commission-based salespeople to sell products, and to provide a digital styling service to customers. Sales have been declining due to the pandemic. This process provides customers with the experience of interacting with a knowledgeable sales assistant through DMs or video calls, instead of traditional online sales which can be impersonal. Companies are providing guidance and the technical infrastructure for staff to connect digitally with customers. Richard Beckerman, a sales associate at Saks Fifth Ave in New York, has amassed 128k Instagram followers and curates a selection of shoes that his followers can purchase.
Hybrid retail workers
During the pandemic when shops were closed, retail stores began enlisting some of their in-store staff to handle e-commerce or customer-service related tasks. As stores started to open, the hybrid retail worker was born. This is someone who works both in the store and handles remote tasks. Visits to indoor malls have come down and online shopping has increased. According to Placer.ai’s latest mall index report, visits to indoor malls in the US were down 8.1% in June 2021, compared to the same period in 2019. This has resulted in a reduced need for in-store staff on a full-time basis. In-store sales people have the expertise to handle the queries of online shoppers, which are mostly similar to the queries they receive in-store.
DTC athleisure brand Vuori began experimenting with hybrid retail workers in 2020 and decided to keep the hybrid roles because they saw value in it. “Our store managers and customer service managers work closely to optimise schedules. This is so there are enough associates in stores when needed, usually on the busiest days such as weekends. Then they work to support customer service on weekdays,” said Catherine Pike, senior director of retail.
Retailers are replicating their in-store services online through virtual appointments and video sessions. The customer gets to view the product as it is displayed in the store and the sales associate gets to see the customer in their home environment. This leads to a better understanding of the customer and more personalised recommendations. We’ve seen dramatic shifts to buying online due to the pandemic and experts believe that many of these consumer habits will persist post the pandemic.However, many customers miss the in-store experience and this method bridges the gap between online shopping and in-person shopping. Outdoor goods retailer REI created a virtual appointment platform for customers to book time with an in-store expert. This allows customers to enquire about bike assembly or repairs and what outdoor equipment they may need for camping trips.
There has been a cultural shift to livestreaming as a method of communicating. Livestream shopping is a multibillion dollar market in China, which generated about $61 billion in 2020. The West has started to follow suit. The US market is estimated to reach $11 billion by the end of 2021. Livestream ecommerce is the modern day equivalent of teleshopping where a live streamed video hosted by a charismatic anchor is aired, during which consumers can shop the featured products. Similar to in-person experiences, customers can participate in real-time, asking questions and commenting. Walmart teamed up with TikTok to present its first livestream selling event last December. It was a one hour event where ten influencers promoted Walmart products. There were some try-on demonstrations during the event. Consumers could purchase these items during the event directly through the TikTok app.
According to data from creator marketing platform Hashtag Paid, people engage with creator content seven times longer than with digital ads. Retailers are dedicating space within their brick-and-mortar stores to social media content generation. In addition to space, they also assist with the infrastructure needed by salespeople and influencers to create content. This is a way to merge offline with online. For the retailers, this method helps build brand awareness in an organic way and extends the reach of their physical stores. It also gives them access to a library of user-generated content. The customers receive an immersive experience where they can engage with the products and experts. The Boots Store in London’s Covent Garden installed a YouTube studio and an Instagram zone where customers can take pictures or conduct live video makeovers and tutorials.
Foot traffic to physical stores is still down and will most likely pick up with time. However, with consumers turning to online shopping during the pandemic, brick and mortar stores will probably not fully return to their pre-pandemic numbers. In any case, retailers will need to continue to adapt to the virtual space, especially for their younger customers, but that doesn’t mean that physical stores are unimportant. They can complement the online offerings to bring consumers a more comprehensive brand experience and provide an edge over competitors.
By Faeeza Khan
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