The Opportunity For Brick-And-Mortar Retailers In Utilizing Exterior Space

Even as COVID immunization has ramped up in recent months, the effects from the abrupt shifts in consumer behavior are far from over for the retail industry. The pandemic has all but wiped out the concept of casual browsing. Foot traffic is down by an astonishing half from the previous year, and conversions are sky-high. This indicates that whenever a customer comes into a store, they’re not there to browse. They’re there to purchase. 

But here’s the problem. Any decrease in footfall is still a considerable shortfall under anything approaching typical circumstances. It’s not a preferable position for retailers with a physical presence with COVID continually rearing its ugly head throughout the United States. Desperate times call for innovative solutions. Retailers desperately try out new solutions to encourage their customers’ return to a safe shopping environment. One option for the retail industry is to take inspiration from the restaurant industry’s solution, which is open-air shopping. 

Extended lockdowns and social distancing have resulted in one thing: cabin fever. Whenever there’s a break in the weather, people try to take advantage of being outside. The danger of COVID transmission is considerably lower outdoors as opposed to indoors. People love being in the fresh air, which presents savvy retailers with an opportunity to take advantage of this mindset.

But not all retailers have the opportunity to take advantage of the exterior space surrounding their stores. Limited space in densely packed urban environments could present a challenge for these types of retailers. Health restrictions could impact this option. Not to mention that there are limitations with the weather cooperating, especially during the peak of the winter season.

But those retailers can take advantage of utilizing the exterior space of their shops. These retailers also have the opportunity to gauge customer reaction to this open-air shopping concept. If they approve, then this trend is likely to become a permanent option for retailers. Before considering the possibility of open-air shopping, retailers must take into consideration the following:

The Option of Curbside

Before 2020, the in-store pickup was a specific niche offering for certain retailers and big-box shops. BOPIS, otherwise known as Buy Online Pickup In-Store, was an option offered to customers that afforded the convenience of online buying with the instant gratification of same-day fulfillment. However, this benefit came at a price to brick-and-mortar merchants. If consumers were no longer required to trudge through a store to find what they wished to buy, they were also unlikely to make those unplanned additions to their total purchase along the way. That’s good news to a customer’s bank balance, but not so good news for a retailer’s bottom line.

What started as a necessary option during the first wave of lockdowns in the United States has become a permanent fixture as an additional sales channel for retailers. Customers have the option of shopping in a shop without ever setting foot in it. And research shows that customers love the choice, with the majority planning on using the service even after the pandemic subsides. Innovative retail firms are checking out brand-new means to simplify the curbside experience as part of their total retail strategy.

After being cooped up from pandemic-induced boredom, getting out of the house highlights that shoppers crave the simple act of making a journey to the store; leaving your car isn’t necessary, making a quick trip to the shopping center car park could be regarded as just as satisfying as a visit to the shopping center in pre-pandemic times.

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Experiential Retail

One of the primary casualties of post-lockdown retail remains experiential retail. Before COVID, many retailers were toying with the idea of experiential retail. Macy’s acquired Story to beef up their overall shopping experience. But experiential retail required high touch, something that COVID all but wiped out. Bringing customers right into an encased space for up-close-and-personal interactions and retail cinema for a factor, went from being the darling of the retail market in 2019 to a burdened scheme almost overnight.

Retailers are beginning to reimagine experiential retail in a post-pandemic landscape. Lowe’s offered curbside trick-or-treating during the Halloween season, which proved a great success at bringing customers to the store. Walmart transformed their parking lots into a Drive-In, featuring a collection of pop-up film screenings that the entire family could enjoy.

These experiences are a great way to build customer loyalty. Customers are most likely to remember a memorable in-person event at a specific retailer. It doesn’t matter if they bought anything or not. It’s all about building a long-term relationship with the customer. They’ll be more likely to shop with that retailer in the future.

Transitional Space

Whether space is used for experiential retail, BOPIS, or a place where the customer transitions from outside to inside, retailers see the importance of utilizing the space; often, retailers use the store entry as a sensory buffer for customers from the outside world. But this can quickly become a bottleneck. 

Utilizing the store entrance to give customers vital information about store safety and in-store navigation can help make the customer’s journey through the store as efficient as possible. That is if the customer decides to make the journey into the physical retail space. In a time of decreased store capacity, better effectiveness implies higher throughput and potentially more significant overall sales.

Final Thoughts

Open-air retail isn’t a magic bullet that will cure the retail industry’s issues in the post-COVID environment. It is, however, an option that retailers can use to their advantage to weather the storm. BOPIS is likely here to stay for the long-haul. And the more ways that retailers can utilize their external environments, the more likely they will benefit going forward.


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About the author

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Agent Provocateur and Chief Creative Officer at Hone Ventures and Un_Standard. We create strategies for businesses of all sizes that improve customer relationships and help businesses grow. In his spare time, he loves experimenting in the kitchen and chasing after his three cats, Hallie Tosis, Lester Een, and Jim G. Vitis.

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