As we continue on the road back to normalcy, there’s an obvious truth we have to acknowledge: Covid-19 has had a profound, permanent impact on brick-and-mortar retail.

Dozens of iconic retail brands are facing bankruptcy. Several of these companies have already been forced to shutter for good since the beginning of the pandemic. More will probably join them soon.

It’s hard enough to provide a physical space in which customers can shop for products under these conditions. Now, though, retailers need to be able to provide a unique experience if they expect buyers to leave the comfort—and safety—of their living rooms. It’s no surprise that, even as the pandemic starts to come under control in several countries, merchants still rate Covid-19 response as their top focus for 2021. The majority of sellers say they had a pessimistic outlook for the rest of 2021, as compared to 2020.

We can’t blame this all on the pandemic, though. This trend in customer expectation has been underway for years. Covid-19 merely provided the systemic shock that accelerated the pace and made it impossible to resist any longer.

The factor that determines each retailer’s ability to thrive in a post-Covid physical retail environment is their adaptability. Specifically, whether they can learn to provide the kind of unique experience that would be worth the trip for buyers.

In-Store Shopping as an Experience

Attracting buyers depends on a merchant’s ability to enrich the customer experience. Again, this is not new; retailers have been feeling pressure to adopt an omnichannel approach to commerce for the last decade.

Contemporary buyers have sophisticated expectations. They want ease and convenience, but they also want to be enchanted. They expect their experience to be seamlessly interactive, almost like magic. On top of all that, they want a personalized customer relationship based around connection to real people.

So, we know that the customers have new expectations for the in-store experience. What can sellers do about it, though?

The first step is transforming how we think about brick-and-mortar outlets. A store is no longer just a place to sell products. The act of walking into a store has to be an enriching experience unto itself.

Retailers have numerous opportunities to make this a reality. Interactive sales kiosks, for example, present an chance to both inform and entertain shoppers. They can help customers identify products, conduct transactions, comparison shop, and entertain themselves—all at the same time. Integrating these with a personal profile using a mobile app even presents opportunities to gamify the in-store experience.

The opportunities are endless; from virtual sports simulators to interactive smart environments, retailers are devising some clever and engaging methods to draw shoppers to the in-store experience. Technologies like connected mirrors or interactive entertainment tied into the products are also options to consider. These can further transform the shopping experience into something totally unique to brick-and-mortar outlets. And, again, remaining relevant demands that brick-and-mortar sellers must provide a unique experience.

Technology-Enabled “Clienteling” for Personalized Experiences

In addition to providing entertainment and novelty, technology also provides abundant opportunities to personalize the in-store environment.

Personalizing the brick-and-mortar customer experience has become just as important as providing a unique experience. Customers want to have a one-to-one relationship with the brand that remains consistent and seamless across channels. Tools like customer relationship management (CRM) technology and behavioral analytics provide the means to accomplish this.

Many major retailers deploy a technique called clienteling to build on established relationships with customers. One recognizable example, as seen at your local Apple Store, is to equip in-store staff with devices like tablets that give them access to CRM technology. They can use this to quickly pull-up data about individual customers’ preferences and behaviors based on past purchases.

Personalizing the in-store experience through clienteling adds value that can’t be replicated in the card-not-present environment. It allows staff to make recommendations that can simultaneously increase average transaction value and boost customer satisfaction.

Of course, adapting to such a tech-centric strategy won’t be easy…or cheap. Bringing this strategy to the in-store experience demands a significant up-front investment. Not only that, but staff will be required to adapt to an entirely new retail paradigm.

Staff Buy-In & Customer Insight are Both Essential

This tech-centric strategy is not meant to replace the human element in the retail experience. In fact, the opposite is true; as mentioned when describing the clienteling strategy above, effective use of technology in brick-and-mortar retail demands a hands-on human experience.

Retailers need to reimagine their in-store staff as advisors, or even as personal shoppers, rather than as traditional salespeople. In-store technology should augment the staff’s skill sets and enable them to guide shoppers through the customer experience.

This requires retraining staff, and will lead to increased labor costs as more is being expected from workers. However, in a changing retail environment, thousands of merchants may find these to be necessary investments for the brick-and-mortar space to remain viable.

The other key to deploying these new strategies in brick-and-mortar retail will be examining the experience from the customer’s perspective. We’re talking about in-depth, point-by-point consideration. This calls for surveys, research, and first-person experience exploring the store as a shopper.

There’s ultimately no road map that can show retailers the path to success in the new retail environment. Everyone is in uncharted territory and simply trying to find their way as they go. We know that a more interactive, engaging, and personalized customer experience is the vehicle. Learning how to navigate, though, is the factor that determines whether a merchant will succeed or fail.