How the COVID-19 Pandemic Will Change In-Person Retail Shopping in Lasting Ways

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Jan 21, 2021 1:35:18 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Suitsupply

After sheltering in place, or at least staying close to home, for almost a year, it’s safe to say that we all have a bit of pandemic fatigue. For many states across the country, restrictions and safety guidelines have fluctuated. In San Francisco, California, for example, shops and other non-essential businesses shuttered in early March — and stayed closed for several months. Over the summer, small retail businesses and restaurants with outdoor dining capabilities reopened with limited capacities, mask mandates, designated hours and strict cleaning and social distancing protocols. While San Francisco carried on into the fall with its strategic phased reopening, the holidays threw a wrench into the plan. To mitigate the risks associated with holiday shopping, travel and dining, the city reinstated a stay-at-home order, further limiting retail shopping.

All of this to say, in San Francisco — and in other cities, towns and states that are keeping positive COVID cases at a minimum — things aren’t back to "normal" yet. And, as the pandemic goes on, retailers have continued to adapt and innovate to meet shoppers’, and health officials’, needs. From shopping appointments to contactless curbside pickup, these innovations might not just be temporary fixes. With this in mind, we’re investigating how the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on in-person shopping.

What Was the Norm Before the Pandemic?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shopping was a lot more carefree — and personal. Consumers didn’t give it a second thought before entering a store to browse and touch merchandise. Remember dressing rooms? It’s hard to imagine changing outfits in a space others have used. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine using shopping carts or baskets without sanitizing the heck out of them.

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Photo Courtesy: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

And then there’s the whole handling money thing, which seemed like a normal practice until we all became hyper-aware of just how easily germs can spread from even the slightest contact with another person. From a convenience and safety perspective, none of us are sad to see crowds dwindle at once-busy stores, but, at the same time, retailers are struggling now more than ever. But are malls and other traditional shopping centers centers dying — or are they simply evolving? And how will our experience of the pandemic further shape this ongoing change?

How Has COVID-19 Changed In-Person Shopping?

When you go shopping, you probably don’t realize just how much you’re touching. At the very least, you’re handling products, touching carts and baskets and punching in your PIN on cash register keypads. And don’t even get us started on fitting rooms, with their doorknobs, hangers, benches and previously-worn apparel. In fact, about 49% of millennials — and 71% of baby boomers — reported feeling uncomfortable about trying on clothes in fitting rooms.

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Photo Courtesy: Alessandro Bremec/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Of course, the virus spreading from person to surface to person is much less of a concern than it was when the pandemic started. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that COVID likely isn’t spread widely as a result of dirty shoes; additionally, Hackensack Meridian Health states that "experts believe that in many situations, it’s unlikely for viral particles to land on clothing, especially if you practice social distancing and the people you encounter wear masks," but also acknowledges that "some people feel calmer and more in control when they remove clothing that they’ve worn in public in case it was exposed to COVID-19."

Regardless of how you feel about clothing as a COVID vector, it’s safe to say that retailers should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting in-store objects. For nearly a year, constant sanitation, face masks, temperature checks, glass barriers at registers and social distancing have become part and parcel if you visit a grocery store, retail business or shopping center. Additionally, many businesses have changed over from favoring cash to favoring contactless transactions, such as Apple Pay. And for stores, like makeup seller Sephora, that once encouraged touch, product testing has been nixed altogether.

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How Will COVID-19 Changes Continue to Impact In-Person Retail Shopping?

Whether you’re window shopping or just browsing, the act of milling about a store or mall offers a sense of escapism. It’s social, without being too social, and, even if you don’t spend any money, the experience of imagining potential purchases is fun, to say the least. Shopping isn’t often likened to a recreational activity, but, in many ways, it’s just that.

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Photo Courtesy: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Lan Xia, professor of marketing at Bentley University, notes in a BBC article that, "Browsing offers the opportunity of serendipity. One thing leads to another and you end up with something you hadn’t thought of buying in the first place." And, honestly, that’s fun. Unfortunately, with social distancing measures in place and caps on the amount of people allowed in stores, shopping feels more like a "get in, get out" situation. Something with a very clear end goal — instead of being something done for pleasure or leisure.

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Additionally, retail stores have had to contend with widespread supply chain issues, consumer stockpiling and a growing uncertainty about brick-and-mortar stores. According to Retail Dive, "more than 40% [of folks surveyed said that] they are ‘avoiding or limiting visits to shopping centers/malls’ and more than 30% are avoiding stores in general." After all, if you’re going to cut down on your contact with the outside world and public spaces, it’s the nonessential that goes first.

Although the National Retail Federation claims that retail sales will grow this year, "from 3.5% to 4.1%" a.k.a. "to more than $3.9 trillion," it’s also clear that in-person retailers might not reap the same benefits as online-based retailers. Unsurprisingly, outside of luxury retailers, businesses in the e-commerce space have seen sales skyrocket. In fact, a DealAid.org survey found that a staggering 90% of consumers said they’ve spent more time shopping online since the pandemic started — and that trend, of favoring online shopping to in-store shopping, continued into the 2020 holiday season too. Doug Stephens, author of Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World, told Retail Dive that the COVID-19 pandemic "will be like adding jet fuel to an already exploding segment of retail. Amazon and a handful of others will be the beneficiaries of a windfall."

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