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The physical — and possibly outdated — act of shopping in stores has always been a tactile, sensory and social experience. You want to feel the heft of the denim, see the actual shade of green, and feel how the fabric drapes on your body before you buy. There’s also a ritualistic element to it all: you deliberate over purchasing decisions with friends and, afterward, go grab a bite to eat.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended all of that. Stores around the world are removing as many opportunities for physical contact from the shopping experience as possible, adding everything from automatic doors to touchless checkout. We likely won’t be shopping with one another any time soon — because staying six feet apart won’t be so much fun. And your physical contact with the clothes you plan to purchase will be limited, if not restricted entirely. The whole affair may feel foreign, even robotic. But because consumers are hyperaware of everything and everyone they touch, it’s what many shoppers need to feel safe.

The fact is, the majority of U.S. consumers want retailers to implement social distancing measures. They also expect technologies, like mobile apps, voice recognition, and touchless kiosks, to save them from having to touch anything in the store. According to a McKinsey consumer survey, cleaning and sanitation is a top concern, along with masks, barriers, and self-checkout options. Many shoppers expect these policies to continue even after the pandemic is over.

The new model for contact-free shopping goes far beyond apps like Apple Pay and Android Pay, which are already widely in use. True contactless shopping starts at the curbside outside the store and encompasses everything that happens in the store until the customer leaves.

“We are on a contactless migration,” says Ashley Renzi, Director of Global Direct to Consumer Strategy at athletic shoe and apparel company New Balance. “Brands must present shopping options throughout the consumer journey, including fitting experiences, that provides the same or elevated levels of service while following government and landlord regulations.”

New touchless app functionality allows you to check an item’s price, rating, and
- if you like - purchase it on the spot [Shutterstock]


1. Curbside

Curbside pickup and delivery has been around for years, of course, but it exploded in popularity when the pandemic hit. In a survey by Big Red Rooster, curbside and drive-through options ranked second only to face masks as the thing that makes consumers feel safe about physical stores.

Fabric and craft chain JOANN Stores made a swift pivot to curbside pickup. Fully aware that it’s a new way of interacting with the store, JOANN made sure to feature a page on its site explains how it works, walking customers through the ordering process, when to go to the store, and what to expect when they arrive.

Curbside retailing doesn’t have to happen at an actual curb either. Retailers may install lockers or drop-off slots for customers to pick up online orders or and return items outside of the store. This serves two purposes: it eliminates physical interactions and speeds up the pickup and return process. And bonus: it also opens up the possibility of pickups and returns outside of store hours.

Retailers may try to get the most out of curbside parking transactions by adding vending machines, display racks, or even digital screens showcasing additional merchandise available for purchase. Even at curbside, “retailers need to ignite browsing behaviors that drive impulse purchases and increase basket size,” says Emily Miller, VP of Strategy and Insights at Big Red Rooster, a brand experience firm.

Check out these resources for launching curbside pickup quickly.

Touchless payment [Shutterstock]


2. Checkout

The checkout process is probably the element of in-store shopping most fraught with peril right now, so it needs to be as hands-off as possible. Consumers are wary of standing close to other shoppers in line, touching keypads, digital pens, kiosks, or even bags handled by associates.

Enabling already prevalent mobile payments like Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Google Pay is one way to assuage concerns. But retailers are only scratching the surface of how our phones can streamline the checkout process. 

According to the National Retail Federation, “when executed properly, consumers can conduct entire transactions on their mobile devices without touching anything else.” Just look at the standard-bearer, Starbucks, which has more than 25 million users of its mobile app. In a recent letter to customers and partners, CEO Kevin Johnson said that they will enhance their app in light of COVID-19, including enabling voice ordering through Siri.

According to Retail TouchPoints, the pandemic created a surge in interest for voice interfaces. Seventy percent of surveyed U.S. consumers said they would use them. Use cases include voice authentication for opening up pickup lockers, voice-enabled kiosks that allow customers to browse merchandise or request assistance with specific items, and credit card processing which can use a customer’s unique voice as an extra security measure.

Taking a page from Amazon Go and Sam’s Club, retailers can also support QR codes on merchandise for “scan and go” shopping. Shoppers can scan the product’s code with the retailer’s app, pay by scanning a QR code, and bag the item themselves. Further enabling this, PayPal recently announced its mobile app now lets consumers make payments in stores by scanning QR codes. This form of checkout-free retail “brings the intended safety aspects of mobile payments to life,” wrote Chris Walton, CEO of Third Haus, a retail technology lab.

Other touchless in-store payment options include mobile apps Venmo and Square, which are a lighter lift to implement and provide options for shoppers to choose how they want to pay.


3. Fitting rooms

Fitting rooms, of course, are high-traffic areas frequented by hundreds of people — many of whom leave merchandise behind. Due to the risk of contamination and cost of frequent cleaning, some retailers, including The Gap and Kohl’s, are temporarily closing them altogether. 

“Consumers will no longer take armfuls of stuff into the dressing room,” says Miller. 

Where rooms are open, associates will ensure sanitizer is available, and will clean the room after each use. Canadian retailer Aritzia is also quarantining unpurchased fitting room items for 72 hours. And similar to some public restrooms, there may be signs outside of fitting rooms letting shoppers know the last time it was scrubbed down. 

Taking it further, Miller says retailers might consider letting shoppers pre-stock and reserve a fitting room online before they arrive at the store. “You may even request certain music be pumped into the room, which would have your name on it. It’s a whole sensory experience.”

Some lucky shoppers may be able to avoid fitting rooms altogether thanks to technology like the brand-specific MySizeID app. It asks customers to enter their measurements so it can then find their appropriate size by scanning a QR or barcode on the tag of the item they like.

AI and augmented reality (AR), already used for virtual try-ons in the beauty space, get very interesting when applied to apparel and even home furnishings. IKEA’s AR app IKEA Place lets customers position virtual furniture into their homes and view it through their phone’s camera. Adidas’ partnership with Snap uses AR to let shoppers “try on” shoes in the Snapchat app. 

Renzi’s take on investing in technology like this in the COVID era is to ensure it delivers an experience your target customers will always want to use. Where some of these investments may drive near-term sales, others may not provide the level of immediate return a retailer needs to justify the investment, but overall improves consumer confidence in their shopping experience.

The thing to remember about retailers in the post-COVID-19 world is many had long been struggling to adapt to shoppers’ ever-changing expectations. For the foreseeable future, many will adopt touchless technologies and processes to lure shoppers back safely and maintain their relevance. Expect to see expanded use of curbside and outdoor spaces, new payment methods, and reimagined fitting rooms. These changes may seem daunting for retailers to implement, but they have the potential to transform a languishing store’s relevance. The acceleration of digital transformation in the store is one positive byproduct of the pandemic.

According to New Balance’s Renzi, “the pandemic presents opportunities for brands to redefine what they want the store experience to be.”

Learn how to embrace contactless engagement to help shoppers feel safe and supported.