What essential retail can teach us about prepping for the next normal

Paul Tiedt | May 14, 2020 Paul Tiedt 05/14/20

As states take varying levels of action to reopen their economies, the safest way for brands to resume operations is to leverage the hard-earned lessons from essential retailers. We set out to determine what this next normal will look like—and what it will take to succeed within it—by combining cross-client analyses with a second wave of proprietary COVID-19 research. In this blog, we use that research to answer 3 key questions:

  • What’s the difference between a positive + negative experience during a global pandemic?
  • How should brands expect behaviors to change long term?
  • What actions should brands be prepared to implement immediately as they reopen?


What’s the difference between a positive + negative experience during a global pandemic?

Health concerns are driving shifts in expectations

Because positive and negative are inherently subjective terms, it’s important to begin with a baseline by analyzing how consumer expectations are changing across industries. With 77% of consumers reporting they’re concerned about their health, it makes sense that new health + safety expectations rank nearly equal in importance (meaning customers expect all measures to be in place—with some industry-specific deviation for #5).

Customer health + safety expectations:

  1. Staff cleaning frequently touched surfaces between use
  2. Staff wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  3. Placing hand sanitizer at entrances + exits
  4. Staff following social distancing guidelines
  5. Provide contactless options like online/mobile ordering, curbside pick-up, + delivery (Restaurant)
  6. Limit the number of customers in the store (Retail)

So with safety top of mind, how are brands measuring up to expectations? We used text analytics to investigate coronavirus-related comments collected by restaurants and essential retailers and broke out themes by sentiment.

Positive-sentiment comments recognize front-line staff for their service

When customers mention keywords related to COVID-19 after a positive experience, they’re noting the efforts of front-line staff, as service-related categories have seen the biggest lift in frequency. Beyond the fact that new safety standards aim to protect customers, people recognize essential employees are putting their health at risk with each shift—and they’re expressing their gratitude with service callouts.

CXM-Text Analytics-Positive Comments

Negative-sentiment comments cite process-related concerns

While positive mentions express gratitude, negative comments more commonly cite issues with operational processes. Topics like Accuracy and Speed of Service are certainly related to front-line staff, but there are a couple important points to note:

  1. Speed of Service complaints aren’t just about being inconvenienced (though that still may be part of it). Customers know longer visits mean prolonged potential exposure, which means they’re likely frustrated with the situation—not the person working the register.
  2. It’s difficult for front-line teams to maintain prior performance levels on things like Speed of Service and Accuracy while balancing a new, high-stakes set of health + safety standards. As customers see these precautions in practice, they may be more likely to complain about the processes at play rather than the individuals involved.

CXM-Text Analytics-Negative Comment

The lesson: SMG was founded on The Service Profit Chain—engaged employees lead to loyal customers, which drives profitable growth—and this is an extension of those principles. Brands that take care of their employees and put them in position to take care of their customers will win trust for the next visit. Over time, those visits will manifest in long-term loyalty and profitability.


How should brands expect behaviors to change long term?

Restaurants must adapt to contactless experiences + expect a new competitive landscape

Regarding the safety of interaction methods, restaurant consumers indicate purchase decisions are being driven by attempts to minimize points of contact. Our most recent study revealed curbside pick-up (34%), drive-thru (29%), and carryout (19%) to be the most preferred, while customers remain leery of delivery—whether in-house or via third-party vendors—because it adds another potential carrier to the mix. A couple noteworthy considerations: the economic impact of the pandemic may be hurting delivery due to surcharges and tips, and consumers may be using restaurant visits as a much-needed reprieve from quarantine.

While these behaviors make sense given current circumstances, it’ll be interesting to see how many stick in the long run and how that will impact the competitive landscape. As shown below, 48% of consumers expect to continue avoiding crowded locations after the pandemic. Whereas local restaurants have mostly competed on unique offerings and ambience without dealing with the operational complexity of delivery/pickup, many have quickly adopted these additional touchpoints—and 23% of customers say they’re likely to order local more frequently moving forward.

CXM-Restaurant Coronavirus Research

Retailers must prepare for an accelerated, industry-wide digital transformation

The retail industry is seeing a similar shift in consumer behaviors and future intent. Non-essential closures and the push to avoid public spaces have forced even the latest adopters to move to digital channels. Whether or not brands are succeeding with their e-commerce strategies, a portion of these new users will likely evolve their shopping habits—and that will have a long-term impact on the consideration stage of the shopping journey.

In fact, when asked the same question about how future interactions with retailers will change after the pandemic, 49% of customers said they’d avoid crowded locations more and 39% said they’d shop online more. Most brands likely have digital transformation efforts underway, but those initiatives will need to be prioritized and accelerated to keep pace with rapidly shifting behaviors.

CXM-Retail Coronavirus Research

The lesson: Old habits may die hard, but they die a lot quicker when there’s no other option. As customers are forced to try new modes of interaction, prepare for significant shifts in channel usage and purchase journeys even as things return to (relatively) normal.


What actions should brands be prepared to implement immediately as they reopen?

Many of these actions should be a given, but they’re worth reiterating:

  • Prioritize health + safety: Take the necessary precautions to protect your staff and equip them with everything they need to protect your customers, including PPE like masks and gloves as well as clear protocols for hygiene and cleanliness. Also, update training modules to ensure staff aren’t just going through the motions but are committed to following guidelines both for customers’ and their own sake.
  • Find innovative ways to interact: Provide options for contactless experiences, whether it’s curbside pick-up, mobile payment at the drive-thru, or online purchases. And be sure to overcommunicate to set expectations and avoid frustrating first-time users.
  • Follow established best practices: For location visits, provide hand sanitizer at entrances and exits, limit the number of customers in stores, label entryways and checkout lines to encourage physical distancing, and consider additional measures like one-way store traffic and dedicated hours for at-risk populations.

These aren’t necessarily all the actions you should be taking, but they’re quickly becoming the bare minimum in the eyes of the customer. Above all else, make sure front-line execution is consistent at each location. If customers notice disparate approaches across locations, they’ll assume their safety is being left to the discretion of your employees rather than being protected by your brand.

The lesson: The blueprint has already been established and put into practice by essential retailers (see this great example published by Kroger). And more importantly, customers are becoming conditioned to consider these precautions table stakes. Don’t expect to be granted a grace period if you take a laissez-faire approach to reopening your stores.


Stay safe, healthy, + informed

I know there’s a lot of information to take in, but it’s critical to act on it to protect your employees, customers, and brand. To keep tabs on SMG’s latest research and best practices, check out our COVID-19 Resource Center.


Paul Tiedt | SVP, Research

Customer Experience Update