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Don’t Scare Shoppers Away: Store Safety Comes First, but Tone is Everything

Ensuring a sense of safety is a must for retailers navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. But while there is so much of a spotlight on health precautions for shoppers and staff alike, retailers may be making the grave mistake of warding off customers, especially if stores are loaded with intimidating signage that do more to spook rather than soothe shoppers.

In a recent panel during PSFK’s Future of Retail event, Ian Johnston, founder and creative director of experience consultancy Quinine, rated current store reopening strategies at a two out of 10, with one being the worst outcome.

“Stores give us a lot of amazing experiences, whether those are social, educational or entertainment, and none of that is back in our stores,” Johnston said. “It seems very controlled and contrived. Everything is around safety, but not even around trust and confidence. There’s a real underlying action and I get it, we want to embed that safety for customers and our staff working there. People need to think in a much more dynamic way. I see too much of the same everywhere. ‘No touch’ doesn’t mean ‘no experience.’”

Johnston actually said one of the store opening strategies he likes the most is not opening stores at all, because it means the retailer likely is not ready and hasn’t figured a winning strategy out yet. While many retailers have rushed to open stores to appease shareholders and recoup revenue, they often are delivering subpar experiences because they haven’t properly evaluated the overall retail landscape, he said.

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Anthony Tasgal, course director for the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Market Research Society, highlighted an example of a sticker that looks like the virus that can be placed on doorknobs or glass panels. He says the sticker would be more playful in nature than a typical sign encouraging specific safety measures, but would get the point across to shoppers without their experience being completely thrown off.

“Rather than telling people ‘don’t touch things,’ you physically put these stickers on and it just creates that unconscious sense of every time you’re touching something you say ‘ew,’” Tasgal said.

During the panel, Kate Nightingale, founder of Style Psychology, didn’t rate the overall reopening strategies much better at three out of 10, but pointed out U.K.-based lingerie retailer Ann Summers and department store Selfridges as companies that have successfully reopened stores in more creative ways.

Ann Summers, for example, opened one store per day early on to learn from each reopening in order to test and learn what they could improve. Selfridges, meanwhile, hired a jazz band to play at the doors of its Oxford Street store in London, which set a celebratory tone to its grand reopening and felt like it was designed to uplift shopper spirits.

This tone is important, especially when delivering on safety-driven initiatives, Nightingale said. She highlighted a client, home furnishings retailer Dowsing & Reynolds, as a company that thoughtfully balance safety and experience by ensuring its in-store anti-virus solutions were completely branded.

“The background to all the brands in their stores is black,” Nightingale said. “So the store has employees wear black masks and black gloves, and there are black hand sanitizer bottles. We also introduced various interactive aspects using principles from Gestalt psychology, and enabled our customers to actually play with the product, obviously that being sanitized both before and after the customer touches it.”

While mileage may vary at a larger retailer with higher foot traffic, the solutions are relatively inexpensive, and show that retailers can make branding and signage that is designed to induce confidence and trust, rather than fear.

“Brands view brands as human beings,” Nightingale said. “If you wouldn’t wear that sticker on your head, don’t put it on the door.”

Given that brand stories have always been a significant part of successful store experiences, it makes sense to continue that theme as store reopen to build more of connection with shoppers. That personality took on new life throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and now can augment the in-store experience if deployed correctly.

“A lot of retailers, particularly their boards as Kate said, have got to stop seeing everything in terms of transactions,” Tasgal said. “We need to look at the language and the tone of voice. I don’t want to hear about convenience or seamlessness or frictionless. I’m a great fan of brand purpose, and I want to look at personality and character and language style and tone of voice. Retailers that have done well throughout the pandemic have understood the sort of feeling and proximity or distance from their consumer. They haven’t done this very transactional parent-child language.”

As far as the long term of the store, Johnston provided a positive outlook for traffic, saying that while many shoppers are willingly distant now or may feel reluctant to enter enclosed spaces, he believes that sentiment won’t be part of the new normal, especially when the peak of the pandemic is in the rear view mirror. Conversely, Johnston noted that consumer tolerance for sub-optimal customer experiences like longer lines and delivery times will dissipate.

“We’re accepting of it now but it will not stay,” Johnston said. “We want good things in our lives. We have high expectations. I will not accept a store that is not filled with things for me to browse. I will not accept a long line to wait to get into a store. I’m okay with it now because I haven’t had those things for a long time, but in the long run, our tolerance will go away and we’ll have the same high expectations that were growing pre-COVID.”