Reinventing the role of the store for retail’s new normal

Richard Willis at retail technology specialists Aptos considers how retail is changing in the wake of the pandemic.

2020 has been a year that no one could have predicted. And even now, with 2020 almost at its close, the feelings of uncertainty remain as coronavirus cases are on the rise in parts of Europe and around the world and as more severe lockdown measures are coming into force.

It has been a devastating and turbulent year, to be certain, but also one that – at least in the retail context – resulted in the maturing of trends that were already in play. The crisis forced upon us an extensive lesson on evolving consumer behaviours and resulted in a rapid, if not entirely graceful, industry-wide shift to be able to serve those needs.

As we look ahead to retail’s “new normal”, retailers that can create agile enterprises and respond quickly to consumers’ shifting preferences will be best positioned for success.

So, where does a retailer start in reimagining its business for a post-pandemic future? A foundational step is to revisit the role of the store and the technology innovations that can be found there.

The evolving role of the store

The speculation as to the possible extinction of retail stores has been around for years, and yet physical retailing remains as necessary as ever in the retail mix. This was readily apparent during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as spikes in e-commerce sales were not enough to make up for the sales retailers lost during store closures.

No matter how much ground e-commerce has gained, digital buying cannot replicate the experience – from instant gratification and sensory experience to hands-on product research and in-person interaction with a sales assistant – that is found in stores.

That said, the function of retail stores must consistently adapt to consumers’ purchase journeys. Retailers should take a look at their portfolio of stores and define the right role for each location.

Some stores may be best designated as experience centres or showrooms, whereas other locations may have a small, designated selling space with a much larger space dedicated to holding inventory for click-and-collect and ship-from-store fulfilment.

Technology innovation within the store is also key, as retailers strive to offer fulfilment flexibility, mobile-enabled interactions and seamless omnichannel experiences.

Fulfilment flexibility is required

It’s hard to imagine a time when shoppers did not expect to buy and collect from virtually anywhere. Shopping journeys routinely include blended online and offline interactions, such as these increasingly common paths to purchase:

  • A customer checks stock availability online before driving to the physical store to purchase.
  • A customer reserves a product online and then goes to the store to pay and collect.
  • A customer is in the store but the desired product is not in stock, so the associate places an “endless aisle” order and the product is shipped to the customer’s home.
  • A customer places an order online and collects the item in-store. When arriving at the store for collection, the customer starts browsing and purchases several additional items.

Retailers’ abilities to offer these and other fulfilment options – all enabled by the physical store – can make or break a sale in today’s new normal.

One such retailer that understands the importance of flexible fulfilment is John Lewis. The department store’s customers will be able to pick up their online orders at nearly 900 click-and-collect points in the UK, in an effort to improve convenience for its shoppers.

Mobile is the new (in-store) mantra

To evolve the role of the store, you must also consider evolving the role of the store associate. One of the easiest ways to do this – and with the highest potential ROI – is to equip your store staff with mobile technologies.

With the right mobile tools, associates can answer customer questions, make product recommendations and personalise interactions; order items that are out of stock, and ship those items directly to the customer’s home; and ring sales on the store floor in a highly efficient manner. One such retailer that recognises the value of mobile technologies is Pets at Home.

“We’re giving our colleagues access to comprehensive information in the palm of their hands so that they can serve pet owners seamlessly – everything will be viewable, from a customer’s order history to product information to stock availability – we will elevate convenience, consultative service and a personalised approach for every Pets At Home customer and their pet,” said group CIO of Pets at Home, William Hewish.

Break down barriers between in-store and online

As Forrester analyst Michelle Beeson stated, “Customers believe they are engaging with one unified brand or organization, regardless of the device or touchpoints that they use. Retailers must ensure the continuity of information and resources across digital and store touchpoints – or risk losing customers to competitors that do.”

While reaching this state of omnichannel nirvana has been the goal for some time, retailers still have trouble achieving it. Recent research by Aptos underscores this point, with a survey of retail executives indicating that “improving the consistency of the customer experience between e-commerce and stores is a top initiative for retailers in the next 12 to 18 months.”

To fully evolve the role of the store, retailers need to eliminate disconnected, channel-specific systems and siloed data. They must adopt a unified commerce platform that offers a holistic view of customers, inventory visibility across the enterprise, and a centralised hub for processing and managing orders. In doing so, retailers will be able to offer shoppers a consistent, unified and seamless experience – no matter when, where or how they are engaging with the brand.

The future of retail is now

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a challenging and disrupting time for many, including those involved in the retail industry. However, if we fully capitalise on the opportunities to innovate in-store offerings, deliver uncompromised customer experiences and adapt to industry-wide changes, we will be best prepared for the year ahead – no matter what it might bring.


Richard Willis is RVP Solution Consulting, EMEA and APAC, Aptos

© Business Reporter 2020