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  • Brendan Howard

Time-in-store: Rethinking Retail in the Age of COVID-19

Updated: Aug 9

Social distancing is reorganizing retail. Our attempts over the past month to re-balance safety, experience and economics remind me of a baby horse trying to walk. We need to innovate more to gallop again.

Economics, Experience, and Safety

At Costco recently, I lined up outside for 20 minutes and another 30 minutes to checkout. I clumsily dodged fellow customers. I heaped supplies into my cart like I was in the 90s game show Supermarket Sweep. I had one joyful moment when the checkout clerk and I laughed about our masks fogging up our glasses.

At a 30,000-foot view, what was different about this shopping experience for me, for Costco's employees, and for Costco as a global retailer, compared to 3 months ago?

From the economic perspective, my bill was 3x as much as usual... but my next usual monthly trip will not be for 3 months. There was probably 2x as many Costco employees to corral customers and constantly clean the premises… but each worker was likely paid a comparable amount as before the crisis. Overall, I and each employee got the same financial return out of the exchange, and Costco likely earned less profit.

Evaluating the customer experience, the trip was a long 2 hours. Despite their compassionate demeanor, many front-line workers were notably stressed. Compared to a 15-minute sample-filled February shopping expedition, this experience was not enjoyable.

Regarding safety, I felt unsafe. Non-checkout workers were unsafe amidst the aimless movement of anxious, befuddled shoppers. Transmission risks for all were higher than needed.

Who Cares?

I had to wait a little longer. Costco employees have jobs. Costco made a little less money. These seem like “first world problems” amidst all that society currently faces. But these friction points are emblematic of challenges in safely and productively restoring the health and vibrancy of our communities critical to economic recovery. To get things persistently moving again, we need to:

  • safely operate as individuals, employees, and businesses,

  • believe it is safe, and trust that each other is acting safely, and

  • identify new approaches promoting safety that are efficient and enjoyable

To reinforce a point, health and safety vs. efficiency is not an either/or tradeoff. It can and should be both.

What's the Solution?

With social distancing, the new bottleneck for retailers is a customer’s time-spent-in-store. How do we safely get people in and out without feeling rushed?

Current approaches make little sense. Reducing store hours at high-demand stores puts everyone at more risk. Creating orderly lines outside stores that devolve into personal bubbles being popped inside doesn’t work either. Pushing everything online is still not yet economically or logistically feasible for all consumers or all retail sectors.

If the bottleneck right now is time-spent-in-store, I see four levers retailers can pull to improve outcomes for consumers, employees and businesses:

  1. Move people through the store faster, without rushing people. For example, use fun, floor graphics to manage traffic and move people purposefully. Instead of sticking milk in the back corner to lure people with other products, make it more accessible and get people in and out fast.

  2. Create incentives to encourage people to shop "off-peak”. Incentives need not be discounts. How can grocery shopping be made more fun at 10pm than at 5pm? Awesome music?

  3. Spread out hours of operation. With kids home, and much of society unemployed or working from home, the 9-5 schedule is less influential. Different hours don’t have to leave employees, employers or customers worse off, if used along with the other levers.

  4. Ensure health and safety above all else: I now shop based on where I feel most safe. This correlates heavily with where employees are objectively safer. PPE is key in this but traffic management, symptom tracking, and other tools are needed as well. Safety is more than just good business; it is a competitive differentiator.

People will stop choosing stores with long lines or that have people getting sick. Optimizing time-in-store will be key in the short, medium, and possibly long-term.

I have recently worked with clients on fun floor way-finding, printed PPE, thermal temperature screening cameras, and other tools that safely, and efficiently reorient retail. New tools to subtly reorient retail will help get things back in balance, but we need to be innovative and open to new ways of making the retail experience safer, faster and smarter.



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