Coronavirus as the Catalyst for Innovation in Retail and Dining

Concept Image: Intelligent Retail Interactive System (IRIS)

New Concepts in Retail Design

The coronavirus has resulted in a cosmic shift for retailers and restaurateurs.  Customers who once sought luxury, indulgence and entertainment now look for efficiency and survival.  Patrons have changed from seeking high-touch retail experiences and extensive product/dining options, to staying well.  In response, the dining industry and retailers are now providing shopping efficiency, safety, and convenience.

This deviation has accelerated the transition from “bricks to clicks” – from physical shopping at retail stores to online shopping and ordering.  Retailers and restaurants are adapting their physical locations to serve as distribution centers with an eye toward shortened delivery times (competing food prep/delivery and products received same day, overnight and via robot). 

We expect that retailers who adopt more minimal human interaction will accelerate.  Strategies like smart lockers, product vending tech, and touchless, curbside/drive-through pickup options are facilitating local pickup to meet the concerns of wary customers. 

To meet public health requirements and ease trepidation, businesses are incorporating no-touch designs with contact-free shopping/food pickup.  More autonomous store concepts like Amazon Go, and especially those that cater to product staples and leverage convenience, will thrive and become more common.  New store designs, perceived by customers as an extension of their own PPE and “keeping safe” strategies, will become favored, go-to support/supply systems. 

Additionally, retailers who can operate with less on-site staff will be more adaptable to ongoing/future coronavirus outbreaks and lockdowns – the utilization of virtual sales staff and store personnel will be able to service customers, keeping the store operational.  Retailers’ use of “endless aisle” and robotic technologies to interact with customers, maintain the store, and stock fixtures will become increasingly important aspects of developing stores that can remain viable and operational in all situations.

Similar approaches and technologies will benefit restaurants with adjustable furniture (rather than fixed or built-in), touchless payment, QR code ordering and automation using robotic waiters and staff.

The Automobile’s Role as PPE

The coronavirus has resulted in a sort of Back to the Future moment.  Where possible, people are using cars, rather than mass transportation and ride-share options, for virtually everything to maintain a safety bubble.  In this sense, the automobile has become the ultimate PPE device – a personal safety pod in which to move about in a coronavirus world and help people take care of their needs.  Supply chain shortcomings have accelerated this shift.  “Overnight” and “Prime” shipping became “maybe next week when the item is in stock” and forced people to seek out local goods and businesses.  

To adapt, businesses beyond fast food are incorporating “shop-by-car” options with drive-throughs, expedited click-and-collect, and curbside pickup.  Wawa is about to test their first drive-through store without any walk-in retail space.  Taco Bell is launching a new “Go Mobile” concept that is about half the size of its standard restaurant and designed primarily around its drive-through and pickup functions, rather than a small dine-in area.  Post-coronavirus, we anticipate that our nation’s waning love for life via the automobile will be rekindled, and retailers who innovate will enhance their bottom lines. 

A New Style of Vehicles 

Additionally, we expect that cars themselves, especially family-oriented vehicles like SUVs and minivans, also will evolve to satisfy public health needs.  Manufacturers will incorporate tech and features that provide PPE-like amenities and facilitate more efficient interactions with retailers and restaurants.  Features will emerge such as built-in, no-touch sanitizer dispensers for the driver and passengers; “indestructible” vehicle interiors that hold up to strong, sanitizing cleaners; and gesture- or voice-driven (rather than touch-based) technology that facilitates direct communication and interaction, based on proximity, with stores and businesses. 

As a customer queues in the drive-through, imagine a menu automatically appearing on the in-car screen (much like when ordering at in-restaurant kiosks).  In the future, this feature will enable a shopper to order and pay without having to interact with an attendant.  Or as a shopper approaches a retailer for curbside pickup/drop-off, the car will automatically notify the retailer, who will move goods into position just prior to arrival and direct customers where to park, for a quicker, more efficient trip.  

A Broader Effect on Small Business Districts

But consumers still want and need to get out rather than remain in the confines of homes and cars.  Retailers have adapted to the coronavirus lockdowns with pop-up, outdoor dining and shopping areas outside their physical facilities.  Previously, many of these outdoor approaches were desired by businesses but were severely restricted by local zoning restrictions, especially those that would necessitate using parking areas and public sidewalks.  We expect that going forward, the coronavirus will continue to break this zoning log jam and soften municipal thinking about permitting these types of retail and dining opportunities.  Coronavirus aside, the public generally likes outdoor shopping and dining, and having these activities in downtowns and communities helps enliven and energize the streetscape. 

“Smooth” is the New “Textured”

As for “stay inside” interiors, we expect recent design trends to be supplanted by a new movement toward safety.  The “pre-coronavirus” aesthetic was filled with rich, textured, earthy materials.  This period provided visual beauty, a connection to the natural world, and engaging, tactile opportunities for the customer.  These dark, richer colors that recently permeated much of retail will be replaced by a brighter, more modern flat-toned look. 

Now, in this time of coronavirus, material colors are swinging brighter to help project to customers and employees the appearance and impression of a clean, sanitized, virus-free environment.  The focus is shifting to materials that can be easily cleaned with disinfectants that do not discolor, stain or harbor germs and viruses. 

Carpeting and natural materials like woods, linens, leather and fabrics are being replaced by faux wood-looking ceramics, and visually textured materials are now desired – glass, stone, metals/alloys, plastics, laminates, vinyl and synthetic fabrics that can be easily cleaned.  In the future, incorporating naturally anti-bacterial materials such as copper on surfaces or components that must be touched – like handrails and door hardware – will be more common.  

Avoiding porous materials is a must, or they will have to be sealed, which over time, will become a maintenance concern.  But changing soft, acoustic absorbing finishes to smooth, easy to clean, hard-surfaced materials may result in noisier spaces.  This shift may require active noise suppression/masking technologies and strategies to maintain a pleasant retail and restaurant experience.

Retail and restaurant environments will use finishes more typically found in medical or food prep environments, where cleanliness and daily disinfection will not take its toll on appearance.  Selecting fade-resistant materials for interior environments will become more important, as UV lights will be incorporated into interior environments as part of the cleaning protocols for retail and business facilities. 

Material and design choices that bake in social distancing cues, rather than stickers on the floor, will support in-store requirements in a softer way.  Customers will adapt and internalize these aspects of shopping, moving the new normal from “top of mind” to “muscle memory.”  Patterns of materials, use of color, lighting cues, etc., are all approaches that will subtly remind shoppers and staff to maintain proper social distancing and non-touch interactions, minimizing the confusion inherent to the current coronavirus environment, as we all grapple with adjusting to the “new normal.”  In turn, safer retail store environments will help reduce anxiety and translate into increased sales.  Ultimately, stores will achieve greater customer loyalty by providing enhanced sanitation approaches perceivable to customers.

To “Pop” or Not To “Pop”?

To break through the indoor nature of retail, pop-up stores will likely increase.  Traditional and legacy retailers who cannot adapt or survive this coronavirus environment will leave gaps of opportunity for a new wave of entrepreneurs and adaptable retailers.  Being able to pop up a retail store when and where needed, without heavy investment or long-term commitment, will allow for more retail innovation, experimentation and timely market response/adaptation.  In addition, this approach will permit retailers to operate more cost-effectively.  Overhead will not be fixed for long periods, so retailers will adapt to market conditions closer to real-time.

In the restaurant industry, “ghost kitchens” will become more popular, as venues shift their kitchen/support functions offsite to service (multiple) dine-in venues.  This arrangement can cost-effectively support dine-in customers, plus pickup, delivery, curbside and smart locker approaches – without the cost and/or expense of duplication for each venue location.  This results in better utilization of expensive real estate for the customer dining experience, allowing the dining and bar areas to expand to accommodate social distancing requirements. 

Past retail approaches may make a comeback.  One is bringing the store to the customer, akin to the classic 1960’s Good Humor truck plying the neighborhoods and bringing the ice cream shop directly to kids. 

Retail businesses and services could bring a specially designed vehicle to the customer, by appointment.  A retailer would provide a physical and virtual showroom – a high-touch experience in a safe, contained and controlled environment.  Retailers who could benefit most from this approach are those who sell products that should be experienced.  For example, an eyewear business could take advantage of this model by accommodating the optical exam and permitting the customer to try on various frames.  Another type of retailer who could succeed is a clothing store.  The retailer could bring an assortment of clothes, pre-selected by a customer, to a desired location.  The vehicle could provide a dressing room, along with a fashion consultant, to guide and fit the individual. 

In-store pop-ups will become more frequent, as smaller specialty retailers look for temporary space – at holidays, leading up to summer, etc.  Small businesses may find value to popping up in other symbiotic retail venues that attract frequent, repeat customers who come for essentials and staples – like grocery and department stores.  Pop-ups that utilize mobile vehicles and trucks could make scheduled appearances in heavily trafficked retailer parking lots (like a Walmart) and provide a fun attraction for the host business’ customer base. 

These mobile businesses could coalesce in vacant or under-used parking areas, where traditional retail business has been lost due to the coronavirus.  Roving retailers could bring some life back to once vibrant retail centers by attracting reluctant shoppers.  Likewise, the traditional, indoor food court may evolve to become an outdoor food truck court-corral, with diners coming via their “PPE” vehicles to pick up a meal “to go” or eat at outdoor tables.  

Pop-up options and ideas will continue to flourish, as will their never-ceasing variety and uniqueness.

Keeping Up an Enjoyable User Experience

As time goes on, more retailers will provide in-store shopping appointments to minimize congestion, increase health and safety, and enable a customer to browse and move about the store. 

Smart Salon Concept Rendering for Safe, Clean Shopping Experience
Gruskin Group had originally developed this innovative approach for a national retailer exploring “store-of-the-future” concepts and updated it for the coronavirus environment.

Thinking futuristically, retailers could provide a private, contained, sanitized and safe environment for customers – a “Smart Salon” within their stores.  In this interactive environment, customers could make an appointment through an app to shop independently or with family/friends.  The store literally would move around the customer and offer a more effective and immersive experience.  Using both digital and analog approaches, a Smart Salon would provide interactive tech using gesture-powered (non-touch) screens, virtual reality, augmented reality, “endless aisle tech,” sound, music and even scent.  These enhancements would lend a much deeper and more impactful product experience than just browsing shelves.  Sales support could be provided by virtual or live AI, with remote sales staff piped into the Smart Salon to facilitate – and even curate – a better customer experience by tailoring it to suit an individual’s specific tastes. 

A primary difference and key aspect of shopping in-store is the ability to touch and interact physically with a product.  In a Smart Salon, the customer could select items before or during an in-store session.  The retailer could deliver these pre-selected products, along with suggested items, ahead of time for hands-on evaluation by the customer.  Any products purchased during a session could be gathered for curbside pickup or shipped to a residence or business.  Then when a Smart Salon session concludes, products would be sanitized and readied for the next appointment.

In addition, a Smart Salon could be pre-merchandised with different product groups, so customers could experience examples of the product segment.  The possibilities of a Smart Salon – along with other future retail approaches and solutions – are as limitless as one’s imagination. 

Long-term Changes

It is likely that safety-driven innovations in retail and dining will only gain momentum.  With the end of COVID-19 possibly years away,1 retailers will continue to re-invent their brands and offerings through safety-focused technology and new thinking.  Simultaneously, a sort of customer “symbiosis” will increase, as people learn to adapt and embrace new approaches and trends in both retail and dining.

1 McKinsey & Company 9/21/2020 article:  “When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?”

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