Why In-Store Experiences Thrive in the Post-Pandemic Economy

2023 Marketing Trends + Insights

It’s little surprise that in-person experiences seem all the more poignant in our post-pandemic world.

Ideas Collide
By Ideas Collide
Trends and Insights Graphic representing "Time to Pivot" and "Why In-Store Experiences Thrive in Post-Pandemic Economy"

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, and the entire world seemed to close its doors in unison, retailers and consumers alike had to pivot to online experiences with a speed and intensity never seen before.

Restaurants that had never considered offering takeout were suddenly faced with signing up for DoorDash or shuttering for the foreseeable future. While online grocery shopping was available pre-pandemic, suddenly, shoppers who might never have taken advantage of the service before had few alternatives. As consumers, we worked on screens, gathered with loved ones on screens, shopped on screens, and talked to our doctors on screens; with few exceptions, in-person experiences were stolen from us practically overnight.

It should come as little surprise, then, that now, in our post-pandemic world, in-person experiences seem all the more poignant. Holiday gatherings feel a little sweeter. Participating in the collective gasp or laughter of an audience in a movie theater feels all the more thrilling. Idly sampling fragrances at the cosmetic counter suddenly feels indulgent.

But not all in-person experiences are created equal. While some, like the examples above, were ones we craved during lockdown, others have gladly been replaced by the public at large with online alternatives first introduced (or improved) during the pandemic. Moving forward, retailers pivoting to in-person experiences need to do so with intention and focus on what matters most to consumers in this post-Covid landscape.


The NEW New Normal

Necessity being the mother of invention (or even innovation) was never truer than during the pandemic. The adoption of a world seemingly without in-person connection was swift and all-encompassing, and retailers in particular found new and creative ways to promote and sell their products online. Though it happened during a time of turmoil, the ease and convenience of e-commerce for the consumer was significant. According to McKinsey, “E-commerce surged during the pandemic, increasing its share of total retail sales by two to five times its pre-pandemic rate across eight countries representing 45 percent of the world’s population and more than 60 percent of global GDP—China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

According to the State of eCommerce: Pre- and Post-Pandemic Report, “…grocery is one of the categories where it still is above pre-pandemic levels…The category saw a huge influx of new grocery eCommerce buyers during the pandemic. Post-pandemic, many consumers have continued to shop groceries online.” The report also notes, “…the pandemic has made people warmer towards purchasing Home and Garden products online”.

That said, some retail experiences benefit the most from in-person shopping. For example, the report notes that Fashion and Apparel is one such category, owing to the “touch and feel” component of those purchases. But in the post-pandemic world, just because a consumer would benefit from trying on or smelling a product first in person, for example, doesn’t mean it’s enough to draw said consumer to a brand’s brick-and-mortar location – the convenience of online shopping is a tough obstacle to overcome and competition for market share between brands is fierce.

According to Shopify, the answer is in crafting an unmissable consumer experience. It’s about “making in-store experiences truly experiential.” Using the example of a soap store, Shopify Retail senior product marketing lead Kevin MacGillivray explains, “Try the soaps, smell them, use them—do what you can only do in store and add that bit of magic you can’t get from buying on a website.”


Love Thy Neighbor

In its recommendations on how to create a standout retail store in 2023, Shopify states that one way to add “the magic that just can’t be replicated online” is to “empower store staff to act as “experience hosts”” and “use your store as a “third space”—a space outside of home and work where people go regularly—to boost foot traffic…” One retailer who has successfully taken this to heart might surprise you.

When James Daunt was brought in as CEO of Barnes & Noble in an attempt to replicate his success reviving Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain, his strategy was replicating what made indie bookstores so special. In addition to cutting the bizarrely miscellaneous products that were being sold in its stores (batteries, blankets, electric chargers, water) and organizing shelves in a way that encourages browsing over strictly alphabetical layouts (organizing history sections chronologically instead of first by authors’ last names) he empowers his local booksellers to create a shopping experience that reflects their individual communities. As explained by NPR, “Daunt gave local Barnes & Noble stores much more authority to order what their readers, in their area want to see.”

To make space for these curated literary experiences, Daunt immediately stopped accepting promotional payments from publishers that would dictate where specific books were displayed in every store. The previously homogenized system didn’t take into account the ways purchasing behaviors differ wildly across the country and even across individual states, resulting in up to 70% of these books being returned to publishers, a major cost to the company. “Instead, allowing local booksellers to curate a meaningful, relevant bookstore experience for their community has proven to make a difference.”

According to an interview with Daunt by Fast Company, “It has shifted from a commercially oriented selection of predictable bestsellers to something much more dynamic, much more driven by individual passions within bookshops,” he says. “If you leave booksellers alone, they’re very good at choosing books they think they can sell.”


That’s Showbiz

Sometimes adding the magic that can’t be replicated online means less of a local approach and more of an experiential one. While many missed the communal entertainment experience of seeing films in theaters, others have found the convenience of viewing movies at home far outweighs the traditional in-person experience. So how has Harkins Theatres chosen to combat this? By turning the traditional experience on its head.

In various locations around Arizona, Harkins is creating a new entertainment center called BackLot. In addition to movie theaters, these family-friendly entertainment hubs will include full-service restaurants and bars, sports viewing, arcade games, bowling, virtual reality experiences, relaxing patios and private party rooms. In short, they will be one-stop shops for the kinds of magnetic, core-memory-forming experiences that can only be had in person. To keep the locations fresh, Harkins promises ever-changing themes and state-of-the-art technology to prevent a one-and-done situation where consumers aren’t likely to return more than once.

For a family or group of friends, it’s always possible to watch the new summer blockbuster from the comfort of home, but it’s much harder to replicate an evening filled with laughter over elevated food and drinks, a few frames of bowling and a thrilling game of laser tag, all rounded out by that quintessential movie-going experience (let’s be honest – even the popcorn tastes better in person).


Your In-Person People

That in-person “magic” will be different for every organization, and success will require truly understanding your customers and what they value in this type of experience. What’s going to move the needle when it comes to convincing them to leave the comfort and convenience of home, and explore your brick and mortar environment? What’s going to increase their affinity for your brand over the competition and convert them into brand loyalists?

At Ideas Collide, we thrive at the intersection of blue sky thinking and manageable implementation. After years of working with clients of all sizes and specialties across multiple industries, we are skilled at identifying a business’s key differentiators, exploring ways to execute concepts that amplify those features, and developing an implementation plan scaled for today’s parameters with an eye on the future.

The pandemic made more people than ever before more comfortable than ever before with online shopping, and many of those purchasing behaviors have stuck.

Instead, allowing local booksellers to curate a meaningful, relevant bookstore experience for their community has proven to make a difference.

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