What consumer trends are impacting today’s in-store retail experience?

Josie Gaeckle | Jun 2, 2021 Josie Gaeckle 06/02/21

As more consumers begin to make in-store visits again, retailers must continue to focus on health + safety measures to ensure customers feel comfortable with their experience. To get a better understanding of what those expectations look like and how they’re impacting consumer behavior, we talked to one of SMG’s resident retail experts, Josie Gaeckle – VP, Client Insights.

Here Josie will cover our most recent research—conducted by SurveyMini®, SMG’s location-based mobile research app—and discuss what’s happening across the retail industry today, the pandemic's lasting impact on consumer behavior, and what brands can do to make customers feel comfortable with their in-store experience.


With the vaccine rollout and reduced mask mandates, what trends can retailers expect to see continue or change?

Expectations from the pandemic are here to stay. Because of that, we’ve seen several trends emerge. Here are the top 3 we’re tracking:

  • Hygiene theater | With mask mandates lessening and vaccination rates increasing, consumers are beginning to return to pre-pandemic “normal” activities. But they still very much care about their health and safety. Customers have maintained high standards regarding brands’ sanitation measures and store cleanliness—and this likely isn’t going away. Some consumer expectations have been forever changed by COVID-19 and this is likely one of them.
  • Omni expectations | Consumers continue to leverage new and multiple channels (i.e., buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS), ship to home, in-store) and they expect these channels to connect seamlessly. Brands without a cohesive experience across touchpoints will be left with frustrated consumers who will likely take their business elsewhere.
  • Speed + ease | Brands offering a contactless experience and self-checkout continue to win customer loyalty and trust. The big challenge now is how to reopen in a way that makes customers feel safe, and many brands are struggling to get that process right.

How are these heightened consumer health + safety expectations impacting the in-store shopping experience?

An early emphasis on the importance of cleaning surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was slightly misguided but it created a precedence with consumers. Stores have to be clean—which very much leads into the labor challenges so many businesses are facing right now.

In April, US retail employment dropped by 15,300 jobs. But to make consumers feel comfortable shopping in person, increased sanitation is still expected—which can require more staff (or more creative staffing).

Fitting rooms are having a big impact on the in-store experience right now. SMG’s latest research showed most people are now comfortable using a fitting room—especially consumers under 34. And when fitting rooms are closed, brands are losing business.

Specifically, younger groups and women are more likely to leave without purchasing if a fitting room is closed. Approximately half of women and consumers under 34 walked out without purchasing because a fitting room was closed. Our research also showed people who shop the most are more comfortable with fitting rooms and more likely to leave if the fitting room isn’t available.

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Where should brands focus to improve in-store experiences today?

The pressure is still on for brands to protect consumers’ health and safety. It's important for your locations to follow local guidelines, clean surfaces between transactions, and provide customers with a safe shopping experience (e.g., having hand sanitizer and/or wipes available throughout the store).

Additionally, customers who shop in-store today are visiting with a greater intent to buy—ensure you’re optimizing your staff to provide a great experience. Here are two ways to manage customer expectations, lessen the burden of a stretched-thin workforce, and increase conversion:

1. Leverage technology + maximize labor

Consumers are using the self-checkout option and are likely to continue. Our research shows 88% have used it in the past 3 months. And it’s a good thing, because a long checkout line can be a barrier to conversion. Unfortunately, the process hasn’t been seamless with 4 out of 5 customers saying they experienced an issue, usually involving a slow experience or a lack of assistance. Self-checkout can free up more employees so they are available to help customers in need and alleviate problems quicker. 

2. Test opening fitting rooms + other conversion-driving elements

Freeing up labor from the checkout can offer the labor needed to open a few fitting rooms and provide both the service and safe environment needed. Opening fitting rooms may also decrease the labor burden of increased returns.    

But really, the most important thing to remember is consumer behavior is never static, and the only way to truly “stay ahead of trends” is to have an agile approach to customer experience management. As more consumers resume pre-COVID activities, retailers that provide a welcoming and safe environment will be the ones to come out on top.

SMG's exclusive Interactive XM Playbook will help you keep pace with evolving customer + employee expectations. Download your free copy here.


Josie Gaeckle | VP, Client Insights

Customer Experience Update