Love is never having to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have kombucha.” When it comes to retail, saying yes to almost anything is increasingly imperative.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the stores that survived the pandemic-enforced closures of 2021 are going the extra aisle-mile to delight returning customers. More than 8,700 locations closed permanently in 2020, while an additional 10,000 stores are projected to close in 2021. Online sales, meanwhile, rose 44% In 2020 over 2019.
These combined factors alone present glaring problems about how retailers should now use their stores and technologies. The 85% of shoppers who increased their use of curbside pickup during the pandemic, for example, won’t easily return to in-store shopping if it is inconvenient. Further, many consumers are more committed to retailers that are purpose-driven, whether that means being Earth-friendly or sustainable.
The best retail operators are experimenting with ways to address these challenges. And once again, they are proving they can rise to it.
Retailers Have Given Us 6 Reasons To “Heart” Them In 2021
From experimental stores to online benefits, retailers are examining a range of opportunities to improve the customer experience in ways that are efficient and cost-effective. Here are half a dozen physical or online store experiences shoppers might just love.
- Smart carts that do the heavy lifting. There is a literal cart race underway among retailers fine-tuning smart carts, and the technology keeps getting better. At Amazon Fresh stores, the Dash Cart is equipped with sensors that weigh produce and calculate the price, as well as read and tabulate the barcodes of other items – no scanning needed. The carts also follow lists made on Amazon Alexa devices. Shoppers exit through tech-equipped checkout lanes that automatically ring-up purchases and email the receipts. As Kroger too, tests smart carts, the outstanding question is feasibility at scale: Are the functionalities and experiences of these carts fine-tuned enough to offset the costs? Many retailers may wait for the price of the technology to come down, and their functionality to rise.
- Fool-proofing self-checkout. This is a complementary service to smart carts, and some may argue it’s overdue. As more retailers ramp up self-checkout and contactless checkout options (a service accelerated by the pandemic), it’s likely they are managing a correlating number of customer checkout errors. That comes with a high risk of turning off shoppers, not to mention potential theft. So in March 2020, Kroger began installing visual artificial intelligence that alerts customers (and/or employees) to self-checkout errors. With nearly half of all shoppers using self-checkout before the pandemic, and 80% requiring assistance at least once during self-checkout, this service may soon pay for itself.
- A more convenient kombucha – and other upgraded treats. For a long time, those who prefer preservative-free, organic or other specialty foods had to make separate trips to specialty stores. That’s been slowly changing, but it took 7-Eleven to show how fast it could change. The convenient chain’s innovation lab store in Texas still sells the grab-n-go options people traditionally have stopped at a convenient store for, but also includes a taqueria, kombucha on tap, cold-pressed juices, custom coffees, made-on-the-premises baked goods and a growler refilling station, for craft beer in a hurry. The rate of convenience store sales growth more than doubled in 2020 – to 8% from 3% in 2019. Concepts like 7-Eleven’s may be partly why.
- Returned transactions without returning goods. Refunding online orders is usually a dreaded endeavor for all parties. This is especially the case for those who have to foot the shipping costs, and thanks to competition, that is frequently the retailer. Now Amazon, Walmart and other companies are using artificial intelligence to decide whether it makes financial sense to process a return. For inexpensive items or those that would require higher shipping fees (think heavy or bulky), retailers have found it is less expensive to just issue a refund and let the customer keep or donate the product. It also builds brand trust. The trick now is using that AI to spot shoppers who are buying and “returning” items they simply don’t want to pay for.
- Rekindling the old into newer new. Sustainability had gained a foothold in the forms of upcycled clothing, reusable grocery packaging and refillable beauty goods, and the pandemic has caused more shoppers to prefer these options. As of August, 61% of consumers told Accenture they are making more sustainable purchases, and 89% said they would likely continue to do so. In response, Nike has designed a new line of shoes comprised almost entirely of the old with its Space Hippie collection. Launched in July 2020, the line is made with 90% recycled materials by weight. It was concocted in Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, where experimenters test concepts ranging from “barefoot shoes” to activity trackers using specialized tools to hand-design and build prototypes.
- Give Thanksgiving a break: Target has already announced it will keep its stores closed on Thanksgiving Day 2021, reversing a trend it had begun among many retailers nearly a decade ago. The chain made the decision based on the positive response it got to keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving Day 2020, when many retailers were changing practices due to the pandemic –Walmart also kept its stores closed on Thanksgiving Day 2020. But these retailers may have been following shoppers’ wishes from the start: 76% of consumers said they wanted retailers to be closed on Thanksgiving Day 2020, according to an Accenture survey.
1 More Thing To Love – 4,000 Stores Are Expected To Open In 2021
Not all shoppers will love all of these ideas, but it’s hard not to fall in love with the efforts behind them. We’ve still got hundreds of thousands of stores in the U.S. (if not 1 million), and millions of shoppers are seeking the right retail mix. When they find it, they will embrace it and through their shopping behaviors they will gradually influence further changes over time. But as in all great love stories, what matters is the journey.