How Brick-and-Mortars Move Forward

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The coronavirus pandemic has transformed brick-and-mortar business, possibly forever. Peter Paine, former eBay and Walmart executive and now head of retail partnerships in the Americas for Cover Genius, checked in with Street Fight to share the strategies physical businesses large and small should prioritize to prepare for the near- and long-term future.

What strategies should brick-and-mortar businesses adopt to keep customers secure and content as they reopen following coronavirus-fueled shutdowns?

More than ever before, consumers are more cautious in all aspects of their lives and will value retailers who can offer them some peace of mind. First and foremost, brick-and-mortar businesses must check with CDC requirements, along with their state and local guidance, recommendations, and enforced laws to make sure they are compliant. Businesses should have the right protection procedures for both customers and employees in place, including social distancing requirements, protective gear (e.g. face masks, gloves), sneeze guard at the register, and limit the number of customers in-store at one time.

They may also take additional precautions such as a full-time cleaning crew that wipes down door handles, cleans checkout areas between customers, and ensures sanitary wipes and hand sanitizers are available for customers to use. These basic services will give customers some peace of mind to entice them to enter stores again.

However, basic is not enough. Consumers will continue to lean toward digital experiences they have gotten used to during the lockdown. Therefore, optimizing their online business will continue to be a top priority for brick-and-mortar stores to ensure that their online capabilities are stable and up to the demand as traffic continues to be high.

Recent research by the Cover Genius analytics team shows an increase of 1,200% in conversion rates for insurance products add-ons. This proves that consumers are now actively looking to protect their valuable purchases when they shop online. This is an act of trust that retailers need to bear in mind when thinking of new ways to keep customers engaged and help them through the uncertain times ahead.

How long-term will the effects of the pandemic on brick-and-mortar businesses be? In what ways will business never be the same?

Some of the most iconic retail brands today — like HP, Trader Joe’s, and Disney — were built during a recession. Especially now, retailers will need to keep up with the new environment that’s dictated by consumers in order to survive and thrive through the next economic downturn. It’s a great time to test new ways of serving customers and creating new opportunities that will bring them real value. With the current pandemic, consumers have been sheltering in place and have become resourceful, learning new ways of shopping. Some consumers likely discovered grocery delivery for the first time, others probably had to explore new retailers at which they’ve never shopped before to find toilet paper and baby formula. A lot of people are learning how curbside pickup works.

Brick-and-mortar retailers will have to broaden how they sell products into new distribution channels to keep their customers engaged. They will also need to come up with new revenue streams, such as add-on services and warranty products to guarantee better margins going forward.

At Street Fight, we cover both small businesses and large many-location brands. How will adapting to the post-pandemic world differ for these two categories?

Many consumers today are more interested in shopping local and supporting businesses close to home because they appreciate the mom-and-pop shop around the corner and don’t want to see them go out of business. Big Red Rooster found in a survey taken in April 2020 that 68% of shoppers that shopped local small businesses recently tipped more than they usually do.

Large retailers will need to learn to be flexible with their operations, finding ways to navigate how their customers want to shop. Consumers will likely want to continue their online shopping behaviors. As such, brands will need to prioritize creating digital experiences that are easy, seamless and most importantly, personalized to make sure they craft engaging relationships with their consumers for the long run.

What would you say to small businesses that would love to hire additional staff and add digital tools but are struggling financially right now? What cheap or free options are available to them?

Small businesses have access to some great free solutions to build a direct-to-consumer ecommerce store with platforms like Shopify and Magento. Another idea is enabling curbside pickup, turning their retail locations into distribution centers, in which case their ecommerce site becomes a catalog of their great product assortments. There are also great marketplace platforms, like Amazon and Facebook marketplace, to quickly list their local products or even enable nationwide shipping. Leveraging site traffic marketplace platforms can help ramp up their business fast.

Which brands are already leading in transforming their businesses as a result of the pandemic? What approaches are they implementing?

Best Buy is a great example of business that is being cautious and responsible with stores opening by appointment-only starting in May. Stores nationwide will have dedicated sales associates greeting customers at the door. With a cleaning crew on staff, appointment areas will be cleaned before and after each appointment, and all Best Buy associates will have to wear protective gear.

Retailers that have remained open during the pandemic are also great examples of how to change in-store operations to serve customers. Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Safeway are just a few of the many that have gotten great press about how they’ve been able to find simple and innovative ways to drive the flow of traffic in-store. Retailers have used simple arrow stickers on the floor as well as passed out snacks and set up entertainment for customers waiting in line outside the store. These simple tactics have helped retail brands create a safer shopping environment while connecting with their customers during a stressful time.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]