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November 30, 2020

Gwen Morrison of Candezent Advisory: Retail Strategies for Making Discovery Safe Again Amid COVID-19

Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“This acceleration of how goods get to the home and the role of physical retail could be really transformed at a much more accelerated rate. What we predict for 2030, we're going to see that closer in as we see the rapid adoption of new technologies.”
— Gwen Morrison, Partner at Candezent Advisory

Before 2020, retail was much more experiential and about product discovery. Shoppers would wander the aisles, touching merchandise and products, testing them, feeling them, and trying them on — reveling in the tactile, visceral experience of shopping.

This focus has changed because of the pandemic. With increased concerns about health and safety, consumers have turned to online shopping en-masse.

This shift has caused retailers to rethink how they engage shoppers and the role brick-and-mortar will play in the customer journey in the future.

"We've seen a sizable shift across many shopper segments, and we also see a different cadence of purchasing altogether," said Gwen Morrison, former CEO of WPP's global retail practice and current partner at Candezent Advisory.

"We're really seeing shoppers adapting to a whole new type of shopping ritual. Standard replenishment items are getting to the home delivered to the door. The shopping for inspirational types of products has become much more constrained because people just don't have the confidence of going into physical retail," Morrison said.

Morrison shared these insights and much more during a recent episode of the Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast, "Making Retail Safe for Discovery Again." Here's how she sees the shopping experience changing and how retailers can adapt.

Quantifying Consumers’ Worries

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the social experience of shopping more fraught with potential risks, which has elevated consumers' worries. In August 2020, the customer data science company dunnhumby released research that indicated consumers' worries have increased since the start of the pandemic — even though 35% of consumers surveyed also said they were satisfied with the in-store shopping experience.

The survey findings may indicate consumers are mostly satisfied with the measures retailers have taken to keep them safe, even though they still feel less comfortable shopping in-store. Morrison said the social aspect of retail has given way to a shopping experience that is all about avoidance.

"Fast forward to today: We see shoppers with lists, and they're dashing and darting trying to avoid each other, trying to anticipate 'Is that person stocking the shelf heading my way or the other way?'"
— Gwen Morrison, Partner at Candezent Advisory

"The pandemic has honestly instilled a sense of worry that is hitting the retail industry hard. It's obviously taken the rug out from all of our anticipated targets, goals, and metrics," she said.

To give consumers a better experience, retailers need to understand their worries and what will make them feel safe. Consumers can then engage in the retail experience more enjoyably.

Discovery Mode vs. Mission Mode

Morrison said this shift to a less experiential shopping experience can be explained in simple terms: Consumers have transitioned from discovery mode to mission mode.

"Today, in an environment where safety is our utmost concern, people have a pretty planned mission when they go to a store, and even high-end retail is becoming an appointment only," Morrison said.

"But even on a day-to-day [basis], take it to the grocery or even going into a mass-format [store] or a The Home Depot or Lowe's, people are pretty organized with what it is that they're looking for. They're using more social media tools and visual tools — Pinterest, for example — to get their ideas and inspiration. They're not getting it through the visual merchandising so much in the store," she said.

Morrison said the discovery aspect of the shopping experience now has shifted from in-store to the home. However, many retailers still offer an online shopping experience that is more utilitarian than immersive.

"We have to look at that continuum of what happens at home and how that becomes a better experience versus frankly, what is still online shopping," she said. "It's very kind of catalog and clunky. It's not inspiring."

Get Ready for Autonomous Retail?

While retailers try to create a more engaging online shopping experience, they also need to inspire consumers to head back in-store. Morrison said they can leverage new technologies to make retail safer and much more autonomous.

We already see this with McDonald's touch screen ordering system and Walmart's plans to roll out self-checkout kiosks, contactless payment options, and scan-and-go mobile capabilities in 1,000 of its stores by 2021.

In the future, Morrison said we could see more retailers harness geofencing, voice technologies, and interactive window displays to make the retail experience more touchless.

If you "start looking at the perimeter of the store, ways to engage and interactive windows, you can start seeing a vision of retail that's integrated with out-of-home interactive, dynamic communication and vending," Morrison said.

"So, I think that's what we have to start looking at as a way to get people more comfortable navigating urban and mall spaces, and put together a combination of interactive touchpoints that are non-touchpoints, low touch or no-touch, but can also become highly experiential," she said.

Create Safe, Experiential Shopping Experiences

Morrison said although retailers have remained nimble throughout the pandemic and have brought products and services to market faster than ever before, they still need to figure out how to re-engage shoppers in a physical environment.

Morrison gave an example of a future shopping experience where a retailer uses voice technology and its mobile app to allow consumers to virtually scan store aisles from the comfort of home or the parking lot and then place their order for delivery or curbside pick-up.

"I think we're going to see this leapfrogging and this transformation where so many of these technologies that have been one-offs start coming together and a much more cohesive experience will come so the shopper can have this more self-guided, more secure shopping trip that still brings brands and ideas to life," she said.

As consumers continue to express concerns about going in-store, retailers must take steps to ease their fears. Along with embracing new technologies, retailers really need to operate more from a place of empathy.

Morrison said it's crucial for them to "be very real with what their [customers'] needs are and come up with creative ways to redeploy assets to meet this moment that none of us anticipated."

Every stage of the customer journey is no longer about how you can tailor your messaging and experiences across channels to move them further down the funnel. It's now about how you can reduce customers' worry at every stage of the journey and help them transition from mission mode back into discovery mode so they can enjoy the visceral, tactile experience of shopping in the way they did before the pandemic completely transformed physical retail.

Listen to the full podcast episode to learn more about the opportunities retailers have to revisit the power of technology and their people to signal safety while re-introducing moments of discovery to drive sales.

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