10 Retail Transformations Forced by the Pandemic

And why I’m tired of hearing about COVID-19
wawa drive through
Photograph courtesy of Wawa

FORT WORTH, Texas — I’m tired of hearing about it, and I bet you are, too. Every newscast, newspaper, talk show and even random conversation is centered on the coronavirus. It’s so ubiquitous that even in my state of burnout, I find myself writing about it, too.

The good news is that, for the most part, the convenience-store industry has met the challenge of the pandemic and largely done what it should be doing internally and at the retail level.

That’s important, because the world will not simply go back to the way it was before COVID-19. The bar has moved in safety protocols, social-distancing norms and the way we take our products to market. The customer journey has forever been altered, and the changes affect all aspects of your business, including facilities, operations, technology, training and design.

There are, of course, hundreds of things that we do differently today than we did a year ago. So as a retail designer, I offer my list—in no particular order—of the 10 most significant changes to the industry.

  1. Drive-thru. Drive-thru windows have been around for decades, but recent customer demand has caused the success of the drive-thru to skyrocket. We even see some of the major retailers, such as Wawa, embracing the concept.
  2. Wider parking spaces. It may not seem like much, but an extra foot or two in width really changes the customer experience and coincides with the desire to socially distance. It seems 10-11 feet minimum is now a standard width.
  3. Multiple entrances. By including two, three or even four entrances, retailers encourage customers to spread out in a store as they come in and begin their customer journey. Combined with the wider parking spaces, it is a positive change.
  4. Automatic doors. I know they have been around forever, but the demand for automatic doors is surging in response to the customer desire to have a frictionless experience.
  5. Curbside pickup and delivery. These alternative ways to meet the customers are natural extensions of the drive-thru. Essentially, customers are handed their orders through the front door rather than through a window. Technology has made this a viable extension of the traditional retail world.
  6. Touchless restrooms. Again, not exactly new, but touchless restrooms are almost a necessity now, and the spacing within restrooms is growing.
  7. Wider aisles. In order to conform to social-distancing demands and increase the comfort level of our customers, wider aisles are key. Consider resets that embrace more space. In some cases, taller shelves are appropriate to facilitate the number of SKUs while still widening the aisles. In other cases, a frank appraisal of reducing SKUs may be in order.
  8. Queuing systems. The addition of queuing systems into a checkout and deli area really helps guide customers to a socially distanced transaction with greater certainty. It can also increase impulse opportunities if done correctly.
  9. Equipment layout to encourage spacing. Gone are the days of customers standing elbow to elbow while getting their coffee or fountain. Stacking space needs to be incorporated into the design. It may be a subtle angle change or simply spreading out, but retailers need to embrace stacking to make customers feel comfortable and safe.
  10. Self-checkout. In this frictionless society, what better way to facilitate that than self-checkout. Yes, there are complications with ID check and customer training, but the end result typically is a happy customer. And maybe the labor you save can accomplish some of those new cleaning protocols.

The final piece of the puzzle is to communicate the changes to your customers. While customers may feel a difference, why not tell them that additional elbow room is for their safety? If they knew the thoughts behind the frictionless experience, they’d likely appreciate it more. Do not assume that the customer knows what you have done on their behalf. Tell them!

This is a very good opportunity to self-promote in a very positive way. Change the conversation. Follow some or all of the 10 design suggestions above, and tell the world.

Mike Lawshe is the president and CEO of Paragon Solutions. Reach him at mlawshe@paragon4design.com.

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