The New Retail: How Coronavirus is Changing Customer Expectations

Written by Jeannine Ghaleb

October 21, 2020

The year 2020 will certainly be a year to remember. Who could have anticipated such drastic changes in just a few weeks? Businesses forced to close, unemployment soaring, the economy plunging from boom to bust – and consumers changing their shopping behaviors as fear of contagion spread across the country and around the world.

At a time when many stores are still closed and the provinces are gradually reopening their economies, it is clear that the so-called “new normal” will present challenges for our retailer-partners. After months of prescribed social distancing and official exhortations about hygiene, consumers have formed new habits and expectations. Those who continue to fear for their physical safety will be reluctant to shop in brick-and-mortar establishments. We must acknowledge their fear and do everything possible to make it easier and more comfortable for them to return. While their fears may dissipate somewhat as restrictions ease over time, we are unlikely to return to the way things were before. This situation is unprecedented for everyone. Try to keep an open mind and embrace the changes as best you can as more are headed our way as conditions evolve.

Create a safe and healthy shopping environment

Hygiene, of course, is the number-one priority right now. To help consumers feel confident about shopping in your store and trust that you are taking every precaution, publicize your disinfection protocols for your display space, washrooms and products, and set up plenty of hand-sanitizer stations throughout your store. You might even consider having your floor staff wear face masks and gloves to instill even more confidence in your hygiene measures.

Since many of our members sell product categories that people want to touch and feel before they buy, you will have to adhere to strict guidelines to make this possible safely. Make sure consumers sanitize their hands before touching anything. Put disposable slip covers on beds and couches before they try them.

Physical distancing guidelines could remain in place for the foreseeable future. Educate your employees about your protocols and revisit them often to make sure they are comfortable with them and applying them consistently. This includes how to manage customers who ignore protocols or who appear oblivious to them. You will also need to reorganize your staffing and floor space to create an airy, uncrowded ambiance.

How you manage deliveries and returns is also of concern to customers so be sure to let them know what measures you have put in place and even walk them through them, if necessary. The best practice for now is to isolate returned stock for 48 hours, then sanitize it before returning it to the sales floor or inventory. No-contact delivery protocols must be consistently applied to reassure customers.

Offer no-touch payment options and personalized shopping experiences

Telephone and online ordering and pick-up, no-touch payment options like Apple Pay, debit/credit card touch payment (instead of keying in passwords) and e-receipts will continue to be preferred options. During the pandemic, online shopping rose exponentially, and it is unlikely shoppers will abandon the convenience – and safety – of this channel once they have gotten used to it. For these reasons, a robust e-commerce site is no longer an option; it’s indispensable. However, not everyone wants to shop online. Some will want to head to your store and speak with a live person after being isolated for so long. Our niche is this personalized smaller-scale retail experience for those shoppers who seek expert advice and want to touch and feel. Tap into that niche.

Customers will also welcome more flexible, more personalized options like store visits by appointment and video sales calls. Examine your expenses to see if you can stay open longer but perhaps with fewer staff. This would give you more dedicated time with customers with fewer shoppers in your store. Take special care of your best customers, your VIPs. Consider offering them private tours of new product launches. Show your customers that you are going the extra mile to accommodate their needs and expectations.

Advertising and deals are more important than ever

Consumer spending is expected to fall significantly this year. Even those who didn’t take a personal hit, like losing their job, having their pay cut or watching their investments drop, will still be more cost conscious. Make sure to offer competitive consumer financing options to help these consumers keep shopping.

The reality is that some retail stores will close permanently after the initial impact of the crisis, potentially leaving some market share up for grabs in your region. To compete, you’ll need to be even more aggressive with your promotions and deals. This is a time to ramp up your marketing, not pull back, despite a natural inclination to cut those expenses when times get tough (the wrong move, as the research shows!). Exploit every advertising platform – traditional (TV, radio) and digital (websites and especially social media) – to incentivize consumers to do business with you. Cantrex is continuously working with our vendor partners to sharpen their prices so you can do likewise.

The “local” movement – the silver lining for independents!

Upheavals often create opportunities and the COVID-19 crisis is no exception. The continued decline in department stores, a trend that began several years ago and has been accelerated by the pandemic, can work to your advantage as consumers opt for interaction with local merchants in smaller, more controllable spaces.

During the pandemic, many consumers experienced product shortages for the first time, which brought the vulnerability of certain supply chains to their attention. Across the country, consumer focus shifted to supporting local businesses, which became recognized as central to ensuring product availability and security, as well as a vibrant community. You can benefit from this initiative by positioning your store as an important contributor to your local economy and by positioning yourself a responsible member of your community by “shopping local” to support other local businesses.


Remember: Although the retail sector – indeed, our entire economy – has entered essentially unchartered territory, you are not alone. You are backstopped by the power of Cantrex Nationwide. Our commitment to our members precedes and will continue beyond the current crisis. In good times and in bad, our team has the expertise and the resources to work with you on solutions in all areas of your business. We are in this together and together, and we will get through this – and prosper!

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