Blackdog’s resident retail guru Dave Shrimpton on who’s getting it right amongst the newly opening non-essential stores.
OK, so the non-essential stores have been open for a couple of weeks now, and although getting my hands on some replacement Apple AirPods may not be a matter of life and death (it’s much more important than that), I braved the Cambridge city centre to check out how these retailers are adapting now that we are taking those first tentative steps out of lockdown.
At Blackdog we’ve been all over COVID-19 comms for a while, with our work for Tesco seemingly leading the way in striking the right tone of voice in politely, but firmly, telling people how to shop at a safe distance from staff and each other. So, I was intrigued to see how the high street and shopping centres would approach opening their doors again.
The Park & Ride was unsurprisingly almost empty, so I stretched out and prepared to see what approaches would be taken in tackling key issues like hygiene, social distancing and navigation.
To make the day more exciting for myself, and to compensate for those much-needed AirPods, I scored the retailers out of 5. Cue music…
John Lewis – 5 out of 5
It won’t come as any real shock that John Lewis got it pretty much spot on. From the dropbox for returns to the associate at the door with a click counter to ensure only 360 people were inside at a time; from the clear, welcoming, high-quality signage to the safety screens and easily-available hand sanitiser, this was what we’d expect retail to look like now.
But the beauty counters were deserted. Stripped of their testers and sales assistants offering makeovers and samples, they made for a very strange sight. I have no doubt that technology will fill that gap pretty quickly with online make up tutorials, virtual mirrors and the like, but for now the tumbleweed mood was very evident.
Staff were helpful and chatty – one friendly assistant told me that most staff went to Waitrose rather than on furlough, and that everyone in the store, no matter their position, helped with a one-hour cleaning session before and after opening hours. Top stuff.
Apple Store – 4.5 out of 5
This was one of the first retailers to close down earlier this year, and its attention to detail was evident: the staff outside managing the queue told me business was ‘steady’, and they’d reduced the touchpoints so people weren’t handling devices as much. Those that were handled were quarantined and cleaned. The minimalist feel of their stores means that less people and more space is not as obvious as other stores, but even so I felt a very different vibe to usual there.
Every customer was handed a mask as they entered, if they didn’t already have one, and had their temperature checked as well with a simple handheld device. Apple clearly understands what makes customers – and employees – feel more comfortable in a COVID-19 world.
Boots – 4 out of 5
A common theme of all the Cambridge retailers I visited was evident in Boots: directional flow with one-way systems to manage how people move through the aisles. And those aisles were noticeably wider, with checkouts removed to make more space. Just as we have done with Tesco, point of sale had the feel of navigational, authoritative signage – the kind we’ve come to subliminally adhere to on the roads.
Specsavers – 4 out of 5
What we want to see from retailers is innovation and creative thinking, and that includes during times like these. This branch of Specsavers has taken over the empty shopfront opposite its optician’s store and turned it into a socially distanced waiting room for customers, whether before an appointment or while waiting for their glasses to be ready. A very nice touch.
Raspberry Pi / JD Sports / Next / TK Maxx / FatFace / Marks & Spencer – 3 out of 5
More directional flow systems in place, often with one door for entering and another for exiting. There was signage to highlight this, often with floor stickers. The bigger stores also had employees with click counters to manage the number of customers inside.
JD Sports was one of the few brands to actually have a queue outside, while the staff at FatFace explained that their fitting rooms were closed and that any clothing items returned were quarantined for 72 hours and cleaned before returning to the display racks.
Sports Direct / Zara / the open-air market – 2.5 out of 5
Not all retailers were doing everything possible, however. Zara had no exterior messaging or staff on the door, and no signs to welcome people back. But the directional flow was fairly clear, and it was also one of the busiest stores even though the variety of stock was clearly reduced. If it ain’t broke, maybe you don’t need to fix it?
Meanwhile, Sports Direct, next door to JD Sports, was its darker, dowdier cousin, with social-distancing signage that was hard to understand.
And while it was good to see a lot of traders back at their stalls in the open-air market, there was no directional flow or signage to help keep people apart.
Before I wrap up, and unwrap those new AirPods, here are a few more observations on the afternoon:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a lot of sales as brands tried to move their unsold stock.
It was quiet. Not eerily so, but definitely not the heaving city centre I know so well.
Most retailers seem to have a handle on the basics – one-way systems, directional flow, floor stickers and so on. But not many were making a point of welcoming customers back after such a long hiatus.
No razzmatazz. The retail environment of 2019 and early 2020 was all about creating an immersive high street experience and offering something more than just a place to buy things, but now it seems most brands are just trying to sell. Getting the basics right.
If I think of those who love to shop and those that are ‘in and outers’, the present retail landscape clearly appeals to the latter, except for the annoying but necessary queues. There is little in these store environments that is conducive to browsing or to the kinds of dwell times that have been integral to the retail experience as we knew it. Most shoppers seemed to know what they wanted and got it as fast as they could.
Knowing a few in my own ‘bubble’ who shop for England, part of their joy of retail therapy is trying on a load of clothes, experimenting with new looks and taking selfies to get a friend’s opinion. That’s going to be hard to replicate as long as we’re living with the virus.
If they are to survive, retailers will need to think hard about the online experience that they offer. They will need to get better at building and engaging with communities, creating sticky, immersive digital content underpinned by technology. And the physical shopping experience will need to be even better than before to remind people what they can’t get out of the online experience.
I reflected on this on the return journey, and I will be back to see how things develop over the next few months.