Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
To say that the last two years have changed the way we do business is a vast understatement. The pandemic has uprooted most facets of normalcy, from how we dine to the way our children learn. It has changed the way we as humans relate to one another, but as we move forward together and navigate the new normal, there is much that brands can learn from the resiliency and compassion manifested since early 2020.
1. Embrace new physical boundaries
Social interactions now seem forever altered, seen in moments as fleeting as greeting with an elbow tap or fist bump in lieu of a handshake. Each person’s physical boundaries have been impacted and re-shaped. And in the same way that we now respectfully ask friends, “Are you okay with a hug?” before rushing in, businesses need to acknowledge and support that customer expectations for in-store contact are significantly different.
According to the National Retail Federation, there were twice as many store openings as closings over the course of 2021, which tells us that the retail apocalypse of 2020 may have been more of a reset. The fact that those openings were heavily skewed toward dollar store, discount and warehouse clubs makes clear that brands prioritizing customer financial wellness have a stronghold in this new economy — a great example of understanding core needs as part of growth strategy.
The future of brick and mortar seems ever-changing — even as it remains clear that in-person shopping still plays an important role — and customers’ needs and expectations for these experiences have shifted. Take the many digital native brands that have opened stores in the last year, and the core intentions behind those openings. More than 30 new Warby Parker stores opened in 2021 so that consumers can try glasses on or talk to a vision expert. Twenty new Parachute stores opened their doors so that people can come in and feel the fabric, texture and comfort of its home furnishings. These brands are forging stronger customer connections by offering additional and engaging experiences.
Put simply, in order to brick-and-mortar connect in a post-Covid world, it’s vital to ask, “What does our customer most need from us?”
2. Remove the line between digital and in-person
New work lives now play out over the internet as much as they do across the proverbial conference table, and the same now applies in the education world. And even for those of us who miss the chemistry of in-person collaboration, we have to admit that the pandemic set us up to more fluidly keep work (and life) going from many locations. For brands to keep customers happy, they need to make shopping experiences just as fluid.
Retail brands have an opportunity to redesign the way they think about online versus in-store experiences. The days of ecommerce as a separate silo are behind us: I encourage every company to think about consumer offerings as simply “retail.” Your customer deserves a consistent experience, whether they’re browsing online, shopping in store or a combination of the two. Think about elevating this experience across the board, whether it’s joining the two-thirds of retailers (again, according to the National Retail Federation) currently planning to offer buy-online-and-pick-up-in-store functionality or otherwise investing in online technology to serve the consumer better.
Finding innovative ways to improve the customer experience regardless of where and how your customer shops is now key to forging lasting connections.
3. Purpose is more important than ever
If 2020 and the shifts that followed taught us anything as a society, it’s that our time, energy and resources are not infinite. I’ve seen this reflected in the ways interpersonal relationships became more intentional, in the rallying around communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic and in the ways workers have stepped away from jobs that didn’t serve them. In the same way, customers now demand more from companies they do business with.
One of the remarkable statistics from 5WPR’s Consumer Culture | 5W Public Relations Report is that more than 70% of consumers now desire brands that align with their identity, their vision for the future and who they are as compassionate, thoughtful individuals. As British-American inspirational speaker and author Simon Sinek put it during a TEDxPuget Sound presentation, “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it” — and why you as a brand do what you do is now more important than ever. Approaches will be unique to every brand, but I urge you to think about how yours can create a meaningful purpose, and invite customers along with you.