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Defining the Socially Distant Store: Is New Tech the New Norm?

The slow reopening of stores throughout the U.S. and worldwide brings one question to everyone’s mind―what will the store experience be like through the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond?

While retailers are still trying to figure that out at their own pace, with apparel retailers such as Gap, Kohl’s and Suitsupply implementing new safety and health measures, technology companies are also attempting to navigate changing shopper behavior by introducing platforms that would support retailers’ and shoppers’ social distancing practices.

One such company, FareHarbor, is taking the software it initially designed to work with travel reservation and booking companies and applying it to retail stores―a completely new industry for the firm. With the retail version of its cloud-based software, the platform aims to help shoppers book appointments ahead of time as a means to support retail’s efforts to maintain limits of how many customers are in store at any given time.

On the other end, Nudge Rewards is extending its own retail platform for frontline employees, specifically building out features designed to optimize the reopening of physical locations and accelerate brand recovery under new market conditions.

These technologies highlight the uncertainty by which stores will operate once they reopen. While essential retailers have made significant changes over the past few months, including expanding curbside pickup, installing plexiglass health guard partitions in front of registers and ensuring all employees wear face masks, apparel retailers haven’t been open to adopt any of these changes in real-time and will be forced to make sweeping changes as soon as they are ready to allow customers through their doors.

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The FareHarbor technology is designed to enable retailers to control in-store capacity and ease overall operations through functions such as contactless entry and in-system texting, all managed through one dashboard. After clicking the “book shopping time” button through the retailer’s website, shoppers will see information online regarding the store’s opening times, shopping rules and health precautions taken.

“We traditionally work in the tour and activity space, which involves time slots, prices and capacity management, which is the underlying of what retail will most likely need in the immediate future,” said Chris Richards, enterprise sales manager, EMEA at FareHarbor. “Retail consultants first reached out to us because they saw that we had a platform that could potentially be modified for what retailers are looking for. We’re trying to help them better manage those local or federal guidelines. If the guideline is one person for every 10 square feet and they’ve got a 100-square-foot store, then we’ll limit this time frame to 10 people.”

These retailers must anticipate changes given how consumers are reacting before even going back to an apparel store. While 54 percent of shoppers say they are ready to buy apparel in store, 65 percent of women and 54 percent of men say they will not feel safe trying on clothes in dressing rooms, while 66 percent of women and 54 of men would not feel safe working with a sales associate, according to a survey from product decision platform First Insight.

The customer-associate relationship is a factor the Nudge team is looking to elevate by prioritizing education via targeted micro-communications and ongoing reinforcement, especially for newer or recently re-hired associates.

“There are so many larger trends at play here that we focused our effort toward,” said Jordan Ekers, co-founder of Nudge Rewards. “We know that a vast majority of the retail and hospitality workforce has been highly furloughed. Every associate that is currently furloughed or looking for a new job are all going to have a new Day 1. If you’re a large retailer and you have 20,000 associates, and you can re-onboard all of those associates in a short period of time to improve the productivity curve, especially in a world where the physical environment was going to be completely different, that for us is a key ingredient for a retailer’s likelihood to succeed as it reopens.”

Through a mobile device, Nudge delivers video content to improve the associate’s learning curve, such as new standard operating practices including social distancing in stores and guiding customers through the new store journey.

“If you think about the psychological safety both for associates and customers as they come back to the store, providing the team with the knowledge, comfort and information around how their brand is going to ensure their safety as they come back online without a doubt is the number-one priority that every one of our brands are talking about,” Ekers said.

Soft Surroundings, a women’s lifestyle retailer with more than 70 stores in the U.S., has leveraged the Nudge app in the past to run employee engagement campaigns via video, interactive quizzes, executive updates, and branded images, and now is working with the team to develop ideas on improving the store experience upon opening its stores again.

FareHarbor hasn’t entered any partnerships yet that it has disclosed, but the company is in ongoing conversations with consultancies representing “a large number of retailers.” That said, the company plans on being in retail for the long haul, given the needs that many businesses had prior to the pandemic.

“From conversations it seems there is a longer tail for appointments in the future,” Richards said. “Not just for a three-month or six-month period, but when things go back to ‘normal,’ there may be a space for having appointment slots for curbside pickup, or still having slots for specific stylist appointment at a high-end retailer. Maybe you’ll want to book a time slot at a high-end retailer when you know someone is going to be working there, or you want to build a more concierge-like experience. Those are potential options both for now and in post-corona times, when the customer experience will be different.”