How COVID Changed Brick-and-Mortar Retail (for the Better)

Retail services implemented during the pandemic are now becoming permanent.

By Alan Wolf, YSN

After his obituary was published, Mark Twain famously wrote “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

So too for brick-and-mortar retail. While physical stores were already sharing the limelight with transactional websites before COVID, many predicted that the pandemic, with its quarantines and lockdowns, would prove the death knell for store-based selling.

But according to a new white paper from Deloitte, “What’s in Store in a Vaccinated World,” it would be wrong to say brick-and-mortar is back because it never went away. Rather, the measures that merchants adapted during the pandemic, and consumers’ shifting priorities and expectations for physical shopping, are bringing permanent change to storefront retail that is arguably for the better.

As Deloitte noted, three-quarters of shopping still takes place in physical retail stores, and rather than suffer a retail apocalypse, the U.S. saw the number of store locations grow by 4,700 year-over-year in the second quarter of 2020 — the highest quarterly store count number on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since then, the availability of vaccines has spurred consumers’ interest in and comfort with the in-store experience, observed Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation (NRF). Citing the white paper, Cullen noted that as of this past May, 71 percent of consumers felt comfortable visiting a store, up from 34 percent the prior year.

At the same time however, shoppers have higher expectations for in-store experiences and services. Procedures that retailers adopted for safety reasons, such as curbside pickup, hours by appointment or contactless checkout, have morphed from temporary measures to permanent customer habits. Indeed, 83 percent of consumers now expect stores to offer flexible shopping and fulfillment options such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), Cullen wrote.

Consequently, physical stores remain a critical asset for retailers to serve customers face-to-face while also serving as a site for omni-fulfillment capabilities. But in order to meet the new expectations of the post-pandemic consumer, retailers should rethink the role of brick-and-mortar stores as part of an overarching strategy to serve customers whenever and however they want.

Deloitte and NRF’s advice? Expand multichannel services like BOPIS and curbside pickup and double down on investments in stores, technology and anything else that helps differentiate your brand.