HALIFAX — A sparkly jewelry store with interactive displays. An upscale parka retailer with a walk-in freezer. A cosmetics store with virtual makeup to try on.
The massive retail reckoning caused by widespread COVID-19-related closures has fast-tracked efforts to turn brick-and-mortar stores into immersive, entertaining spaces that draw customers in.
As online shopping continues its meteoric rise, retailers are scrambling to reimagine traditional in-person commerce to entice foot traffic back into stores.
It won’t be easy. In July, Statistics Canada said e-commerce sales soared to an all-time high in May, reaching a record $3.9 billion, an increase of 110 per cent compared with May 2019.
With rising concerns about a second wave of COVID-19 and shoppers able to find almost anything online, experts say getting people out of their homes and into stores will require unparalleled customer service and enticing experiences.
They say special events, in-store loyalty perks and discounts, and helpful, knowledgeable staff will be critical for the survival of non-essential brick-and-mortar stores.
“People want to get out and have the sense that they are part of a community,” said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group.
“The human connection is really important. Otherwise they’re just going to order online.”
She said retailers are rethinking store space to serve as part entertaining shopping experience, part warehouse of sorts for “buy online, pick up in store” purchases.
“Retailers that recognize that this is not a blip and are pivoting to change the way they do business are winning,” Hutcheson said.
Avis Devine, associate professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, said the pandemic isn’t creating new retail trends.
“It’s just a magnifying glass,” she said. “It’s taking things that were already happening and expediting it.”
For retailers, she said it’s about building brand loyalty. For consumers, it’s about increased personalization.
“Those are the drivers that shape how retailers are interacting with real estate differently,” said Devine, part of the university’s Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure.
“Retailers are thinking about how they’re going to differentiate their experience in order to get people to spend their very special time with them.”
One of the trends in the competitive retail market is companies like U.S. cosmetics brand CoverGirl and winter clothing manufacturer Canada Goose Holdings Inc. opening stores.
“These are brands that are taking out store space that we hadn’t historically seen on an individual basis,” Devine said. “They’re creating their own space to have close ‘touch contact’ with their customers.”
She said some retailers are implementing virtual or augmented reality tools in their stores as a way to draw customers in.
Crystal glass, jewelry and accessories brand Swarovski opened its first “crystal studio” location in Canada at Sherway Gardens shopping mall in Toronto on Friday.
The retailer said the “digital concept store” combines brick-and-mortar retail with virtual components for a modernized and interactive shopping experience.
“When developing the concept, we really tried to learn from our consumers and address their needs,” Robert Buchbauer, executive board chairman and consumer goods business CEO for Swarovski, said in a statement.
“From augmented reality screens catering to shoppers who want to quickly select products, to the sparkle bar where people can enjoy trying on products for as long as they like, we believe we have created a memorable in-store experience for everyone.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2020.
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press