What will the post-COVID-19 store experience be like?

With the return to 'non-essential' in-store shopping now only a week away, clearly things aren't just going to be as they were before.The Coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, and it is likely that we'll be keeping our distance for much of the rest of the year (if not longer).Since the government's announcement that 'non-essential' stores will be given the green light to reopen in the UK on the 15thJune, retailers have been laying the groundwork for re-entry, and implementing changes that need to be made to the normal order of business.Some of these measures may be phased out over time, but some could become a permanent feature of the post-COVID-19 store experience in response to changes in consumer behaviour.

Maintaining distance

Social distancing is a major element in all reopening strategies announced so far.The focus is on retailers being able to do business, while not contributing to another spike in cases. As such, many governments are requesting that retailers limit the number of customers in a store at any one time, and the UK government has recently produced guidance for shops and branches on how to work safely during the pandemic.In the US, we have seen Simon Property Group recently publish safety protocols for the reopening of its malls and shopping centres, which echo similar approaches elsewhere in the world.Whereas once the focus was on encouraging customers to spend as long as possible in the space, it now seems to be on moving them through it.For example, Simon will close typical gathering areas like play areas and drinking fountains. It will also limit and reconfigure seating in food courts to minimise the number of people in the area at one time, and to make sure they are socially distanced. Similarly, there will be directional signage and dividers to control traffic flow and queuing where necessary.Luxury retailers like Watches of Switzerland and Boodles have begun offering online consultations before coming into stores, in order to help reduce the amount of contact time for customers and staff.Elsewhere, John Lewis is looking to reopen stores with large car parks first, so that staff and customers don't need to use public transport to get to them.In the same vein, it's likely that out of town stores and retail parks, which have similar large parking facilities, may be preferred by shoppers initially to minimise contact with others.These retail stores typically also have a larger footprint which makes it easier to reconfigure them for social distancing. Next has already confirmed that it will be looking at opening these types of stores first. 

Change of usage

A lot of retail stores may find themselves having to adapt their usage when it comes to re-entry.For example, it's likely that many people will be coming into spaces for a specific reason rather than to browse. Retailers may therefore need to merchandise their stores in different ways.This could be grouping products together to make purchases faster, such as all the ingredients to cook a certain dish; beauty products for a particular look; clothes merchandised by complete outfit; or even just putting all of the same items, such as dresses etc. together.Many visits will be driven by the collection, or returning of purchases, rather than transacting. Retailers need to think about how they can make this process as quick, and contact-free as possible. For example, lockers could be used to collect online purchases, or to deposit items to be processed for refund.Some retailers are looking into valet-based services, where customers notify staff that they are coming to the store, so they can meet them at the entrance, outside, or even at their car, to hand over purchases or process returns.Other changes of usage are likely to include the fulfilment of ecommerce orders from stores (where permitted). This will allow retailers to make the most of the stock they have in each space and their staff in helping pick and pack orders.

Stricter hygiene practices

Part of the challenge in reopening stores is around getting customers to use them. No-one is going to be shopping in person if they don't feel safe doing so.Therefore, a lot of re-entry strategies will focus on visible high levels of hygiene. This includes staff handing out bottles of hand sanitiser to customers as per Saks' approach. Saks is also putting a focus on sanitising and cleaning its store during opening hours as well as outside it. This approach will help customers to trust that the space is safe to be in, because they can see things like seating and doorknobs being wiped down with their own eyes.Protective equipment such as face masks and gloves is also going to feature heavily. Dubai Mall has made the wearing of them mandatory as part of its reopening protocols. Customers also have to have their temperature checked before they can enter the mall each time they visit.Hygiene presents a challenge when it comes to trying on, and touching products, as well as returning purchases that will have been tried on at home. Some retailers may opt to close fitting rooms, while others may reduce capacity and ramp up cleaning. It's likely that tried-on or returned products will be kept to one side for a pre-determined amount of time before being made available to other shoppers. As seen recently with Kurt Geiger, who will put footwear aside for 24 hours after a customer has tried them on, and Waterstones, who has said it will quarantine books for 72 hours.

Technological enhancements

Tech also has a role to play in the reopening of retail stores.Contactless payment options have already become the preferred approach for both retailers and customers. This is likely to continue, especially if the contactless payment limit increase to £45 remains in place.It's therefore essential that any retailer looking to reopen its stores ensures that it has contactless payment capabilities as much as possible. Checkout from the shop floor tech may also be helpful, as it means staff don't have to touch the checkout area or tills, and customers don't have to queue to buy.Despite the safety measures being taken, it's likely that not all shoppers will want to return to stores in the immediate future. Live shopping technology is therefore likely to be in demand to help bridge the gap.Apps like Hero let store staff interact with customers via text, chat and video, which means that they can serve online shoppers during quieter periods. With footfall likely to be restricted for some time, this approach is a great way for staff to support purchases in a distanced way.

New ways of operating

The current global situation is an evolving one. This means that things can, and will change quickly when it comes to guidelines and restrictions. There's no doubt that this will also partly be down to observation of reopening strategies elsewhere in the world and their effectiveness.As such, retailers need to maintain a flexible and adaptive mind-set now more than ever. Instead of trying to get back to the way things were, to their old way of operating, they need to be focusing on new approaches, because there is no going back. The world has changed - now retailers have to do the same.Top tips/considerations

  • Stores needs to be a destination - Check your lease beforehand, but consider whether you can share space with other retailers to help drive footfall and potential new customers
  • Gearing to change - Consider whether you can offer online services or click and collect to help generate sales whilst footfall in stores is reduced
  • Safe guarding of staff and customers is of upmost importance - Consider what measures are needed upon entering and browsing stores, and how staff can engage with customers whilst remaining at a safe distance
  • Risk - You will need to undertake a specific risk assessments for the re-opening of stores in line with government guidance


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.