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The Pandemic Emphasized Human Connection As It Changed How Customers Enter Stores

The new mediated shopping experience, where customers wait in line to enter a store, to pay or read their order to a salesperson, makes brands’ human connection more important than ever.

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A Frozen Yogurt store during the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by the author

A few weeks ago, before inside seating in restaurants was allowed in New Jersey, I went to buy some Build Your Own Yoghurt with my children. It was a hot day, and we were all thirsty for something cold. As we stood in line outside, we peeked at the menu posted proudly at the entrance. We asked ourselves which flavor would be perfect for this summer day and tried to imagine the cold fresh taste under our masks.

When it was our turn, we approached the efficient and busy salesperson who asked us for our order and wrote it in brief strokes of pencil on a small pad, gave us an understanding nod, and went on her way to prepare our order. At the entrance behind a big round wood table, we kept standing there, looking at her as she put our order together. My children looked longingly from a distance at all the gummy bears and chocolate bites they love to pour on their yogurt for themselves, disappointed that someone else is doing that. I looked at the salesperson thinking about how her job description has changed and how hard she must be working now, running around and collecting all those gummy bears. The yogurt was delicious, but as the experience didn’t include actually building our own yogurt, it just wasn’t as fun.

The COVID-19 pandemic means we have to keep our distance and limit how many people can be in a space, which has forced retailers to change how customers enter the store. Instead of walking freely in open doors, customers now stand quietly in line, six feet apart, waiting for their turn to get their hands sprayed in hand sanitizer and enter the store. In other cases, when the store is too small to let people in without keeping the proper distance, customers find themselves asking for their order from a salesperson through a window or across a plastic shield. This mediated experience is in stark contrast to what we’ve been used to.

These changes mean brands have new contact points now: the salespeople and visual cues at the front of the store. Before the pandemic, customers had free access to space and products. They could pick things up and feel them before buying and usually only talked to a salesperson only when they needed assistance or were ready to pay. Now this interaction starts before they enter the store, as they wait in line and have a lot of time to look at the entrance, signage, menu, or surroundings. The human connection has become a new emotional point of contact, an additional factor of the shopping experience.

Waiting in line: Time and emotions

In other cases, when socially-distanced customers read their orders to salespeople, this is their only interaction with the stores’ goods. Instead of squeezing into a small and cramped store, offering a quaint experience of familiarity and warmness, the customer is now left outside, replacing the individual sensual delight of the shop’s smells, texture, and design with a distant interaction with a salesperson. Instead, we stand in line with masked strangers who are preoccupied with keeping their physical distance from one another. An experience of discovery becomes an experience of functionality. Instead of the shop’s controlled climate, the customer stands at the mercy of the weather.

This experience of ordering from a salesperson isn’t entirely new — this is what previous generations did at the general store where customers would stand in front of the counter and handover a shopping list to the salesperson who would assemble the goods at the counter and calculate the bill. Similarly to our BYY experience, the shopping experience was mostly functional and focused on human interaction with the salesperson. You couldn’t feel the products or smell them. You could only order them and were dependent on the seller’s attentive attitude. The experience of abundance when shopping became an experience of focused personal interaction with the seller and the menu.

How can retailers thrive in this climate?

This means, for example, offering personalized warm and hearty greetings, even behind the masks. Other options could be assembling a comfortable and welcoming line to wait in. Creative decorations could turn this functional experience into a game designed as adult hopscotch or an adventure path for kids, with a salesperson rewarding children who waited patiently with stickers. Handing a basket, a disposable branded mask, or even a small branded token of appreciation to the customers waiting in line, could be great options. These options allow brands to strategically communicate with customers by showing them that the brand understands and appreciates they have taken their time to wait to enter the store, communicating that their time, emotions, and decision to enter the store matter.

As the pandemic shifts our lives in ways we could barely imagine, retailers must understand that the new social distancing rules added another layer to customers’ interaction with their brand. To address that, retailers should focus on the personalization of the physical shopping experience. Simple yet critical steps such as understanding the shift in the sales process, acknowledging its effect on the customer’s state of mind and patience, and offering them a more enjoyable shopping experience, as much as possible under current conditions, would make the shopping experience more enjoyable and memorable.

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I help companies and executives to tell their stories, focus their messages and reach audiences

I help companies and executives to tell their stories, focus their messages and reach audiences

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