As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in certain parts of the United States, restaurant and retail sectors are caught in the middle of a political and public health tug-of-war. The mixed federal, state and local public health guidance to continue to stay home and limit close interactions and large groups stands at odds with the growing calls to ease restrictions and for public life to begin to return to normal.
Consumer confidence in returning to shopping and dining remains at record lows. Today, 35 percent of retail and shopping, and 53 percent of restaurants on Yelp that were open on March 1, 2020 are now permanently closed. Regardless of the pandemic’s outlook, one thing remains true: restaurant and retail remain in a fight for their lives.
While tactics to safely reopen stores and restaurants continue to evolve, discussions are turning to how to adapt to phased reopening orders while building consumer confidence and coming up with new ways to secure financial viability. With uncertainty abound, how are restaurant and retail businesses charting the future?
Creating Flexible, Scalable Plans
States are implementing phased reopening processes in reaction to COVID-19 case statistics, with each subsequent phase following reopening guidance that immediately impacts restaurant and retail businesses.
As the phased approach only lends guidance on where and how businesses can resume operations, they must still plan for the possibility of reopening being delayed or even reversed. Restaurant and retail businesses must be especially nimble and flexible in their approaches to ensure they are prepared for a regress in their operations.
For small businesses operating on the guidance from a state or municipality and larger restaurants or retail chains analyzing different stages of reopening across the country alike, flexible and multidirectional operational plans must be developed—particularly as concerns of a potential second wave or additional spikes rise.
Building Trust with Customers
At the heart of the dilemma for restaurant and retail businesses is how to retain customer confidence—that the shopping or dining experience is safe, accessible, convenient and enjoyable despite changes to their previous in-store or dining experiences. It’s not enough to build and implement reopening plans. Those plans must be effectively communicated to customers in terms of the customer experience.
Customers want to know exactly what they will experience—from start to finish—and businesses must take time to highlight how customers’ health and safety are being protected at every step of the way. Many businesses have had success in sharing infographics or posting videos detailing the customer experience and disseminating via social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok.
It is important to remember that all restaurants and retail businesses are still competing for customers, albeit perhaps less on price and value, but more on accommodation. Businesses must communicate to customers what makes their reopening plan unique, and how they are going above and beyond to protect their customers.
Preparing for the Future
COVID-19 stands poised to leave an indelible mark on the way we interact and transact in public. As intimidating as it sounds, we may never go back to a “normal.” With restaurant and retail margins thin, businesses must begin to consider new, different and innovative ways to engage, connect and sell to customers.
From restaurants creating curbside meal kits and selling gift cards to retail stores standing up full-service delivery offerings and creating virtual showrooms, business owners are adapting out of necessity and drastically shifting the customer experience and legacy routes to market to stay afloat.
The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the vital and irreplaceable role restaurant and retail businesses play in our lives. And while it is an existential risk to many—as evidenced by the wave of recent high-profile bankruptcies—this moment presents a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of modern restaurants and retail stores for the better.
With a COVID-19 vaccine still several months or years away, local factors will continue to inform how businesses can move ahead; but in order to come back stronger, business owners must plan for more change, meet their customers where they are and prepare for the long haul, which may include rethinking the restaurant and retail experience as we know it.