Coaxing an anxious nation back on to the High Street

Consumers, anxious about the pandemic, are wary of using the High Street for their shopping.  John Federman argues that we we need to persuade them to return.

COVID anxiety has become a ‘thing’ we have all battled in our personal and professional lives for months now. As government lockdown restrictions continue to ease, figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that average anxiety scores are still way higher than last year, with an estimated 19 million adults suffering what’s regarded as ‘high’ levels of anxiety.

At the start of the public health crisis, UK consumers were forced to make significant changes to their lives that are driving long-lasting behavioural shifts. As a result, many no longer feel comfortable about undertaking ‘normal’ activities such as meeting friends, going out for food and drink, travelling on public transport – or using a changing room when shopping in-person. Indications are that the rise of the ‘anxious consumer’ has become an established trend that has lasting implications for the in-person shopping experience.

So, how can the UK High Street coax customers back and overcome what is now an entrenched COVID-19 anxiety among customers?

Anxiety levels are high among UK shoppers

Research undertaken by the ONS in April and May on the impact of the coronavirus on British society reveals a significant variation of anxiety levels among the UK population. Older generations are twice as likely as young adults to be experiencing high anxiety levels, while women are more than twice as likely as men to report feeling highly anxious.

More recently, the ONS has released findings that highlight the enduring nature of these elevated anxiety levels on people’s lives. Almost a quarter of people said they felt it would take more than a year for their life to return to ‘normal’ – or that it never would. This was true for all age groups, including those aged between 16 and 29.

With UK consumers predicting that, despite lockdown restrictions easing, it will take a long time to become comfortable about undertaking day-to-day activities, retailers will need to go the extra mile to ensure customers feel less wary about visiting stores.

Steps UK retailers can take to re-build consumer trust

As consumers prepare to live more risk-averse lives, retailers will need to take proactive steps to mitigate consumer anxiety and make the in-store experience as seamless and convenient as possible.

That should include offering more in-store digital payment options that eliminate the need for shoppers to queue or use cash, as well as managing the physical environment to make it easier for shoppers to observe social distancing when browsing or entering and leaving the store.

Utilising technologies that enable enhanced footfall management will also support retailers in creating environments shoppers feel comfortable visiting. Deploying directional signage will be vital – as will re-designing store layouts to allow increased space for shoppers to browse and move between aisles and product areas.

Monitoring occupancy levels will also be critical. Consumers remain hyper-alert to any environment that poses a risk to their personal wellbeing, and will only enter retail outlets or locations that have systems in place to manage appropriate foot traffic levels. Solutions such as people counters, occupancy managers and pre-booked appointments will both allow retailers to throttle footfall traffic, and build-in and manage cleaning times.

Finally, those stores most able to satisfy returning customer shopping needs will be the most successful at getting them to make purchases – and spend more money. While occupancy restrictions may be in place, retailers should plan to overstaff to ensure that appropriate manpower is available to enforce new protocols, and be on hand to deal with customer questions and purchasing transactions. Returning loyal customers will not tolerate waiting unnecessarily in-store to satisfy their pent-up desire to spend.

Offer customers new shopping options

To address the needs of those cautious consumers that are less confident about browsing in-store, retailers should provide alternative shopping options that can improve the customer experience – and reduce their anxiety.

For example, offering click-and-collect options gives loyal customers the chance to get their orders faster – either from an outdoor kiosk, bay or curbside – without leaving the safety of their car. Similarly, allowing customers to schedule their visit, or shop by appointment, will give them the added reassurance that they are unlikely to encounter a crowded store. Providing a full up-to-date and detailed description and overview of the shopping option available to customers on the store’s website will enable shoppers to assess the measures a retailer has put in place and select the option that’s most appropriate to their immediate needs.

Many retailers adopted innovative new approaches to providing shopping services for loyal customers, while lockdown was still in place. These included offering video appointments for customers that wanted a one-to-one personal shopping consultation or product demonstration. This next highly personalised evolution of the shopping experience gives customers the opportunity to experience the product discovery, curation, and ‘live’ customer service interactions they crave – and looks set to become an established part of the way we will continue to shop going forward.

Sustaining the rebound

Regaining consumer confidence will be the key to getting customers back to shopping brick and mortar stores. For many consumers, shopping for immediate future will be different – but early indications are that many are eager to experiential element and human interactions and engagement that are part and parcel of the in-store shopping experience. Sustaining footfall and long-term retail recovery will depend on ensuring that they address the heightened awareness and uncertainty consumers have about their own health and safety – and demonstrate how they are addressing these concerns.

John Federman is CEO of the enterprise scheduling platform JRNI

© Business Reporter 2021

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