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In March 2020, coronavirus shuttered the doors of many retail stores, leaving malls across the United States in a state of halted animation. And as states reopened, we saw that consumer behavior remained changed by the pandemic, leaving many in the retail world wondering: What exactly is the future of in-person retail shopping? Is the flight to online retail shopping permanent?

Malls have been in decline for decades, and with increased aversion to public indoor spaces, many have been quick to call COVID-19 the last nail in the coffin for these retail behemoths. Some malls—and their tenants—have been adapting their marketing strategies, to meet consumers where they are comfortable. Let’s take a look at some of these longer-lasting consumer trends and how retail is adapting. 

Photo via Unsplash

#1: Hygiene transparency

The first hurdle to cross is: how do we ensure employees’ and customers’ health so that they feel safe to return to physical stores? Shopping centers that remain transparent about their cleaning procedures and can clearly communicate how they are implementing the CDC’s regulations (e.g. face masks, social distancing) are the most successful in this category. Some key features to note and include in digital communications are:

  • Sanitation and cleaning procedures (for common spaces and entry points) and employee wellness checks
  • Social distancing, including store capacities and foot traffic concerns
  • Protective gear (e.g. face masks, gloves, plexiglass shields) for both employees and consumers

There are both high-level and low-level approaches to this; for example, the Mall of America put together the icon graphics above to illustrate each point to their COVID-19 response, which are easy to share (and reshare) on social. Others have conducted extensive video shoots showing off rearranged common spaces, designations for spread-out foot traffic and other alterations to maintain social distancing. 

#2: Online shopping adoption will continue

During lockdown, many consumers tried and adopted new products and services in order to shop for value and bulk. Brand loyalties shifted, and more consumers experimented with store-brand rather than seeking their preferred, premium brands. This was especially true in the food and personal care categories.

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We’ve seen stores combat this by adopting a “buy Online, pick up in store” model to get consumers back into the store; it helps the consumer cut down on shipping time and gives the store a chance to get additional sales. It also offers the chance to customize each customer’s visit and improve upon that consumer’s relationship with your brand. 

For those that have returned to in-person shopping already, though, more consumers are now conducting pre-shopping homework and not taking the time to browse products not on their lists or spontaneously drop in at other locations on the premises. For retail centers, who often rely on a few big anchor stores (think your big department stores) to bring in foot traffic for their smaller stores, this trend is most likely the most damaging. Some stores have started offering personal shoppers/stylists through virtual consultations or via Instagram or TikTok to connect with consumers during this stage and take them browsing through products virtually, so that when they do come to the store, they are more likely to make purchases.

Larger retail spaces are looking to more essential tenants, like grocery stores, to entice shoppers back to their centers. During lockdown, spending shifted to more essential products and this is expected to extend into 2021.

#3: Low-contact options and outdoor shopping

Retail centers and stores with ample parking and outdoor space are in a better position going into 2021, as consumers look for alternative shopping options, specifically those that involve limited physical interaction and allow for social distancing.

Curbside pickup programs at KIMCO properties, for example, have been successful in increasing visits without increasing physical contact. Other centers have started open-air pop-up markets so consumers can stay outside in the fresh air and easily stay six feet apart. 

#4: Homebody economy

Even with stores reopened, not all consumers are returning to in-person shopping. The lockdown created a “homebody economy” in which we spend the majority of time at home, meaning we spend more time consuming media and more time on domestic activities like cooking, home improvement projects, or at-home fitness. 

Some retail companies and shopping centers have branched out into media production and virtual event planning as a result. Over the summer, we saw several malls experiment with care packages, online shows and drive-in events. Here are some examples: 

The Mall at University Town Center (Sarasota County, Florida)

This Florida shopping center launched a virtual Summer Fun Club. Participants picked up a weekly craft packet from the center’s customer service desk on select days and crafted along every Thursday via Facebook Live. Each week featured a different theme, with a group craft/activity and surprise guests.

Westgate Entertainment District (Glendale, Arizona)

If the center has the space, drive-in events are a great solution for maintaining social distance. But Westgate took it a step further, making movie tickets free if you ordered takeout from one of its restaurants. All guests had to do was place theire order ahead of time and then call the restaurant with their parking spot for car-side delivery. For those more wellness-minded, they also ran a Fitness in the District” content series offering free online workouts via Facebook Live, hosted by their two fitness center tenants.  

The Grove (Los Angeles, California)

The Grove has utilized IGTV to deliver a weekly kids’ variety show with kid-friendly entertainers to keep consumers coming back to their profile and engaging with the brand. This offering is unique in that it doesn’t directly tie back to any of the mall’s stores. However, it provided much-needed positive entertainment and in doing so, fostered current consumer relationships and follower growth, creating a loyal, virtual community. 

Brands across the board, not just shopping centers, will need to continue reevaluating their marketing strategies and their target audiences. We expect these trends to carry on into the near future, but as 2020 has taught us, normal is subjective. Our next normal might be completely different, and all we can do is be ready to adapt. 

About the Author

Kierstyn Schneck

Kierstyn is an account coordinator at ChatterBlast. As a recent D.C. transplant, she can be found in Philadelphia's nearby hiking trails or joining others in their dog envy on the bridge over the Schuylkill River Park.

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