By now, you’ve grown used to the plexiglass barriers at the grocery store cash register. The neon tape on the pharmacy floor telling you where to stand as you wait to check out has become a familiar sight. And you know the closest you’ll get to a nightclub is managing the one-in-one-out rule when you line up at the hardware store.
What will it be like to shop in a post-pandemic world? (Or a world that is still very much mid-pandemic?) To find out, I spoke with consumer expert Lisa Lee Freeman and retail consultant and author of the book “Remarkable Retail,” Steve Dennis.
Here’s what you can expect when you’re ready to venture back into stores.
The rules are going to be different
Get ready for more clear barriers at cash registers and directional floor stickers.
“A lot of the changes are going to stick,” Freeman said. “We’re still going to see stores limiting the number of people, so the waiting in line will continue.”
Once you get to the head of the line, don’t be surprised if your favourite store has a smaller layout than you’re used to. Dennis explained that a condensed shopping area makes it easier for employees to keep up with sanitising efforts.
But don’t expect to see tons of employees waiting to assist you between sanitising rounds, Freeman pointed out. Just as stores are likely to open back up in phases, they’ll be bringing their employees back in smaller groups as well.
Customer service will vary
Speaking of employees—the way you interact with store associates is about to change.
In the U.S., Best Buy has begun to reopen stores with an appointment-only model—when you arrive at your designated time, you are assigned a dedicated sales associate who will assist you at a safe distance, explained CEO Corie Barry on the Today Show.
Meanwhile, stores like Foot Locker, Kohl’s and Old Navy are planning to keep fitting rooms closed when their locations begin to reopen this month.
That means the level of service you’re going to get from store staffers will vary widely from chain to chain. You might get one-on-one assistance after waiting in line to enter (a nightmare for people who like to shop independently), or you might not be able to get much help from an associate at all.
“There’s going to be a real uptick in appointment shopping,” Dennis said, but he expects that will depend on the type of retailer. “There are plenty of shopping [categories] where people want to wander,” he said.
Freeman pointed out that stores that offer drop-in styling services or in-store makeovers likely won’t offer those perks, so be prepared for a scaled-back experience if you’re planning to visit a store like Nordstrom or Sephora that usually lets you get up close and personal.
Curbside pickup is here to stay… sort of
Retailers have been bending over backward to let you shop in a way that makes you feel comfortable, offering in-store pickup for online orders, curbside service or free shipping. This variety isn’t likely to go away once stores reopen, although you may see some services drop off in a few months, our experts agreed.
While services like BOPIS (that’s Buy Online, Pick Up in Store) aren’t new, retailers are embracing and promoting them more than ever. But for the long-term, offering these accommodations may not be profitable for every type of retailer, Dennis explained. So while your nearest big-box store is likely to let you mix and match your ordering style, a smaller chain may end those convenient services in a few months.
The sales will be big and weird
Early winter is usually a great time to find discounts on autumn merchandise. That’ll be true this year, but Dennis warned that not every category of items will have similar discounts.
While you won’t see huge pricing swings for groceries and home improvement (as those stores have mostly been open during the pandemic), you’ll see big discounts for obviously seasonal categories. Think about all the autumn holidays that are tied to buying a new outfit, Dennis said: Graduations and church-going days like Easter.
“If you want a party dress, you’ll probably see an 80%-90% markdown,” Dennis said. But jeans or work-from-home-friendly attire? Not so much.
Dennis advised shoppers not to expect huge discounts the moment retailers reopen, as they’ll probably wait to see how much merchandise they can move before doling out markdowns. June is probably prime time for saving, he said.
But by that point, we’ll likely be seeing a different type of sale: liquidations. “I don’t think sales are all going to be happy sales,” Freeman said. “We’re going to see, unfortunately, quite a few retailers that aren’t going to make it through this,” Dennis said. “Get used to saying goodbye.”