Our Heightened Sense of Community
The COVID-19 pandemic has given retail a rare opportunity to stop and consider what we want the future of retail to become. Yet, while we wait for life to return to normal, we have seen two fundamental shifts in our attitudes and behaviour: an increased sense of empathy for others, and protection for ourselves. On the other side of this pandemic, retail will need to respond to these new needs of customers and find innovative new ways to create brand experiences. We have identified several areas of emerging attitudes and have outlined how they lead to exciting opportunities in retail in a series of articles.
How can local and global connections bring a greater sense of place?
For those under strict lockdown, travel habits have been heavily restricted. Most of us have kept our travel close to home - a walk in the local park or a trip to the closest grocery store. As our travel habits have become more localised, our sense of place has become more focused. Some people are more grounded to everything their local community has to offer, they become more accustomed to each street, park and local business. Our local community has become a more significant part of our identity as we depend upon it more.
Our ties to the local community also offer us support in many ways. We feel greater dependency on our local businesses. During these times, our local grocer or chemist feels like life support. There's a strong sense of a shared experience with our close neighbours. Anyone who has clapped for front-line workers outside their house, has surely felt a powerful sense of community; coming together for something shared and greater than ourselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the most profound shared experience for a generation, and ironically, it is bringing everyone closer together. In this sense, the community reaches far further than our local neighbourhoods and brings a national, or even global, connection. Many people see other countries in lockdown, other health systems scrambling for survival, and can empathise through their own personal or local reality. Many of us have video (Zoom) calls with friends or family in other parts of the globe and share the same fears, frustrations and hopes.
As much as we feel this heightened sense of community, through all of its layers, we crave social interaction. In a sense, we are coming together to create a sense of community many of us had but can no longer access. It's never been more apparent how much we need social interaction, where we previously took it for granted. Those instances of human contact in the office, the pub, or on retail excursions, provided a sense of community before being forced to isolate.
WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT HOLD…
Building relationships with retail staff
We used to have relationships with many retail staff members; the banker that we knew by name, the butcher that knew the family. The custom of personal conversation with retail staff has been lost for many years. Rarely do customers ask how a staff member serving them is, even rarer does a staff member introduce themselves by name. To its detriment, retail experience has lost the idea that the staff member is an individual, and you can have a personal relationship with them. Understanding that a retail store is a place of work for an individual, not just a touchpoint for a brand, is critical to changing our approach to retail staff. The store design has a role to play here. Take the back-of-house into the front to make the retail environment a place of work that can be mutually beneficial for both customers and staff. Physical spaces are props that mediate our relationship. The bank has lost that sense of place over the years; today, there are no tellers or desks. In the future, the store design will need to provide insight into the tasks spaces can facilitate.
Retail environments become our community hubs
'One size fits all' store rollouts are a thing of the past. Look at the localised store format strategy that Starbucks and Aesop implement. Too many store formats use a 'big-business' local mentality that doesn't actually relate to the location of the store. What are the functional aspects of the store, and how does that play into the local community? We should think of each location as its own entity, even if it's still under the umbrella of a global brand. The retail environment can also provide value to a community outside of business opening hours. We should see telecommunication stores transform into art galleries, or clothing stores be used as centres for community workshops. Retail designers should be thinking about flexibility and mixed-use capabilities, while conceiving a new retail concept and planning a store layout. Retail businesses should be thinking about the benefits of their store being heavily used and integrated into the community.
Locally Curated Stores go personal
Our renewed sense of community might supercharge the necessity for brands to customise stores for local audiences. While previous trends have seen store curation go from global to local, the next step is to make stores personal and individual. The best local experiences are a step towards personalisation. We already see stores offering personal styling services, but the extreme would see stores personalising product curation in-store. Store stock could be tailored to meet the visit of an individual after making a reservation online. Imagine booking an appointment for a store visit, and when you arrive products in the store are based on your online viewing and purchase history. Everything is in your size and to your style. You are being shown items based on their compatibility with what you currently own, or perhaps what you can afford.
Store localisation is a way of building relationships and establishing trust with your customers. We need to get back to establishing a relationship with a single place. Currently, most business activities are centralised, but increasingly our brand touchpoints need to be localised. Rather than speaking to someone at a national call centre, we should be calling our local store and talking to someone we know. The same goes for delivery. Convenience has many moving parts that are usually organised by an impersonal central head. We should have continuity to the experience we have with a brand, which is built on people and relationships. Currently, brands are bigger than the people that work there. What if this was flipped? What if in the future the brand was made up of the personalities that worked there? Apple has done this with great success. In a branded environment of the new normal, the staff will be trusted, autonomous and always 'on-brand'.
Our time at home has led our focus to one place. Many people have established new ties to the local community and are experiencing its great supportive attributes. The shared experience is bringing people together on many levels - across the local neighbourhood, nationally and globally. We are deeply missing the social integration we once knew, but the community that is no longer available isn't lost to us. Retail can embody this community spirit in many ways, starting with the closer relationships between customers and staff. We should be designing stores with a true community focus, both in how we use the physical space and in how we curate stores for local audiences. In the new normal, retail needs to understand its role in forging local relationships and for being a hub for different types of community activities.