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Operating in the Crosshairs of the COVID Pandemic: Retailers Must Reinvent the Customer Experience


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the way retail businesses operate, one component in the crosshairs is the customer experience (CX). In our recent virtual leadership summit, “De-Invest to Re-Invest,” Kevin Coupe of Morning News Beat brainstormed this topic with Beth Stiller, CEO of Massage Envy, Gwen Morrison, former CEO of WPP's Retail Practice—The Store, and Meri Guylan, Executive Experience Strategy Director for Left Field Labs about the future of retail’s CX.


From in-store shopping capabilities to the safety concerns of a service industry like Massage Envy, all three provided insightful views into what patrons can expect in the coming months—and potentially years.


Pivoting Processes, Not Core Values


One powerful statement made by Stiller was that Massage Envy won’t be reinventing their core service—nor their core values. What will inevitably change is how patrons experience that service.


Even prior to the pandemic, the company was exploring options like contactless check-ins, virtual intake forms, and the way users paid for their massage services. "There's nothing like an unprecedented experience such as this to ‘supercharge’ your plans and force you to move quicker—when you already thought you were moving quickly," she shared.


Going forward, the company will continue to mitigate challenges of reopening their 1,150 locations, keeping safety the main priority—for both the customers and the therapists and estheticians. As of the summit, approximately half of the locations had opened for business, but all were ready for the green light.


How Safety Factors into the 3 Pillars of CX


Left Field Lab’s Guylan weighed in on the issue of safety as well, having worked with several brands that maintain brick and mortar locations. In the context of safety, which she avers is the number-one priority of most retailers, customers will maintain a focus—and ultimately rate their experience—on the three pillars of convenience, value, and communication.


However, there is an element of “forgiveness,” or patience, that most shoppers are willing to grant as everyone tries to navigate the new normal. “There are some things that changed for the negative, and some areas where there’s an opportunity for us to try new things. Because everybody knows we don’t have the answer. No one has the answer,” stated Guylan. “There’s a forgiveness they’re allowing, and so brands are able to play in a space that they weren’t able to [previously]. Everyone is experimenting and open to new ideas.”


An Opportunity for Retailers to Spread Their Wings


An element of experimentation is looking at customer experience from an in-store shopping POV. Will physical associates be needed, or might virtual associates suffice? With advancements in the retailer technology space, there’s ample leeway to play in the sandbox.


In Morrison’s words, it’s a time for companies to “spread their wings.” Some capabilities won’t work going forward and they’ll have to be left behind. Others will need to be reimagined. The rapidity of innovation, essentially three years’ worth in a span of three months, presents a promising opportunity for retailers.


Unfortunately, there’s one key CX component that will require ingenuity and creativity: recreating that sensory-stimulating, idea-generating feeling shoppers get when browsing in-store. This typically doesn’t apply to everyday purchases that have long been given over to the online experience (toiletries, groceries, household goods, etc.). But, it is an area that deserves a novel approach given the current circumstances.


Despite Everything, It All Comes Down to Community Engagement


When the pandemic started to really take hold, all across the globe, Morrison observed an interesting trend. Businesses started to evaluate and shift their capabilities—not only taking into account the experience of their customers, but more importantly their communities. For example, McDonald’s locations in Australia recognized the opportunity to distribute key essentials such as bread, milk, and flour via the drive-thru.


“Retail is always at the heart of a community. They've touched people. They can see what's going on in their neighborhoods. That's just one example of being really 'nimble' in shifting and identifying what you have and what you can do differently," she noted.


So, Where Can Retail De-Invest (At Least for Now)?


Given the theme of the summit, each panel member had an idea of what retail, in general, can do to de-invest. Morrison’s idea is one most everyone can get behind in current times: axing the Sunday print circular. “We've seen promotional cadence change so much during this pandemic. FMCG brands are hesitant to be promoting certain price points as they usually do because of the risk of being out of stock. Everything is being reconsidered in this particular area.”


Guylan expressed her opinion of how in-store browsing will shift, with retailers featuring fewer items on shelves, perhaps fewer (or virtual) associates. “The entire browse experience is going to change.”


Stiller’s input revolved around processes and how the big, complicated pilot of a new idea will need to be simplified—something all four parties wholeheartedly agreed upon. “We’ve learned to be nimble over the last few weeks, and we need to carry that forward.”

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