Reopening Trade-Offs

A systematic, creative approach can help consumers embrace new behaviors that keep shopping safe, convenient and enjoyable, even during a pandemic.

On May 11, Belgium took a major step in the gradual lifting of the lockdown that the country had been under for nearly eight weeks. Most shops were allowed to open again, of course subject to the usual precautions of spatial distancing (a much better term than ‘social’ distancing) and hygiene. Many of them had tried to keep on trading online or through ad hoc measures, but throughout the lockdown, retail turnover had dropped on average by dramatic 70% compared to the same period last year.

In the first week of the new normal this reduction in turnover had shrunk to 25%. Despite much lower footfall than normal, many customers appeared to be in catch-up mode. But this will quickly pass, and ordinary shopping will be different from what it was for some time to come. That is a challenge for retailers. How can they encourage as many customers as possible to come back to their stores?

To explore this question, it is useful to pull it apart into two complementary (and even conflicting) ones: what makes people want to shop, and what makes them not want to shop? Dan Ariely captures this dichotomy well in his rocket ship metaphor: to make it travel fast and efficiently, you must add fuel and reduce friction. With a better understanding of what preoccupies the customers, it is possible to define and implement measures that effectively address both questions.

Rekindling the desire

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive these last few months is, for sure, an understatement. But it is not because people have been restricted to buying only groceries all this time, that will have lost the desire to shop for clothes, cosmetics, homewares, or all these items that were deemed non-essentials.

Nevertheless, shopping may not be the first thing people will be eager to do when lockdown measures are eased. A survey by the BVA Nudge Consulting’s parent company in 12 countries revealed that, for nearly 75% of respondents, leisure, meeting friends, or outdoor activity topped their list. Nevertheless, 10% had “hurry to one of my favorite shops” as their number one priority (it was in fourth position – ahead of, intriguingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, “spending more time with my family”).

Out of sight, out of mind, the saying goes. Putting the store (and the corresponding shopping experience) back in view will help old customers remember, and make new customers aware of the enjoyment. Mass communication can do this, but it is also worth trying to make the message more personal and relevant.

One way to do this is with timely communication. Prompts can be very effective nudges: the British National Health Service has been using text messages to remind patients of appointments, reducing the number of missed ones by more than a quarter. We may not wish to compare a visit to a shop to a visit to a dentist’s appointment, but it is clear that a timely cue works. A personalized message associated with a time or an occasion that is relevant to customers (perhaps something related to the approaching summer?) can (re)activate the desire to pop to the shop.

In normal times, shopping also has a social dimension. It is often a shared experience with a partner, or with a friend or relative. And even though we may dislike huge crowds, we do tend to enjoy the friendly buzz of other people in the store. Much of this will not be happening for some time to come because of the need for spatial distancing – a maximum number of customers in the store at any one time, only solo customers allowed in. Yet the social dimension can still be given some prominence in the communication. Just being reminded that other people have been visiting the store, and hearing what has been selling well can boost memories of the old shopping experience. Social media are obviously perfectly suited for such messaging to customers.

The survey mentioned earlier also found that customers are not just tactical buyers looking for a bargain: they also pay attention to the attitude and behavior of a store, in particular regarding their social responsibility and the care for staff and customers, especially now that protecting people’s health is of great significance. This too can provide a hook for a shop on which to hang its message – “This is important to you, and so it is to us”. Emphasizing similarity and agreement in outlook increases affinity and attraction.

Trade-offs to make shopping safe and easy and attractive

This brings us to the second perspective. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a lot of friction to conventional shopping. Two potential reasons why customers may be reluctant, or uninclined to return to the stores stand out: concern about their health, and concern about the loss of convenience.

Many measures can be taken as given, like providing hand sanitizer for customers and staff alike, and ensuring safe physical distancing, for example through controlled entry, a one-way system for customer flow, and plastic screens at the tills. But what you do is not the whole story. As Dan Ariely emphasized in a recent BVA Nudge Consulting BE.GOOD! podcast, if what you do is also made visible, its effect will go much further.

A store with salient interventions, specific to its business and well thought through, implies it is run by people who are knowledgeable, confident, and trustworthy, and who, above all, care. Done well, this goes beyond just reassurance that the minimum is being done. A retailer who shows they have gone the extra mile to take the customers’ worries away sends a very strong signal indeed.

However, important as protecting against the virus is, customers will not be prepared to sacrifice all convenience and enjoyment simply to feel safe in a store. They will make trade-offs, and that gives retailers an opportunity to do so too, and from the viewpoint of the customer.

A systematic approach goes a long way. What do customers see as the principal vectors of contagion in a store? Interaction with store staff or other customers, and handling merchandise and touching other objects (clothes racks, fitting room curtains) are generic possibilities, but depending on the business in question – a bike shop, a fashion boutique and a homeware store can be quite different – there are many other opportunities to explore.

Approach each one with a clear trade-off mindset. How can the perceived risk of contagion be reduced? What would be the cost – in the widest sense – of reducing it further? The effect on the shopping experience is critical, but there may other consequences to be borne in mind too. Will disinfecting clothes require extra staff, and where will be the space for this to be done? If clothes were individually wrapped in plastic on the racks, might consumers see this as in conflict with principles of sustainability?

Then look at how this affects the customer experience, again seeking better trade-offs. What can be done to make it easier and more attractive? What would be the impact of this on the health risk? What are the possibilities for merging online and instore perspectives – could, for example, the ‘click-and-collect’ practice of grocery stores be reshaped to ‘click-try-and collect’, where customers book a time slot to fit certain clothes in their size, which are then prepared to make the experience as smooth as possible?

Shopping will, at least for the time being, involve new behaviors.

It is the creativity of retailers that will determine how successfully customers will adopt these new behaviors. By exploring different ways to engage with customers, in recognition of the trade-offs they are willing to make between protection and convenience, between safety and enjoyment, they can add fuel and reduce friction where it really makes a difference. That is the way to keep shopping during a pandemic easyattractive and social. This may involve tricky choices, but here too, a challenge can be turned into an opportunity: timely communication to customers not just that you are balancing two conflicting forces, but also how you are doing it, and why you are making the trade-offs you make. The reward can be a deeper customer relationship than before.