What Will the New Normal Look Like?
By Angie Ash, EVP
When COVID first reared its ugly head, there was no phrase I despised hearing quite as much as the “new normal”. There was nothing even remotely “normal” about what the world was going through when the pandemic hit. With almost a year of COVID under our belts, though, the phrase is finally settling into something more understandable. We’ve all gotten used to seeing each other in masks, we expertly bump elbows instead of engaging in the customary handshake, we leave buildings while simultaneously sanitizing our hands, and we’ve mastered the intricacies of Zoom meetings.
But what has been left in COVID’s wake for retailers to digest? Let’s take a look at a few things consumers have embraced in order to understand how new shopping habits will impact the future of retail shopping. And, how businesses will need to continue to adapt.
Virtual events. While it’s true that many people want to get back to gatherings as we’ve known them pre-pandemic, the reality is that virtual events have some serious pros. For example, one of our retail jewelry clients hosted a virtual auction to benefit a charity. Other clients dabbled in specific virtual events like gemstone roundtables. Both events brought in sales. In the case of the auction event, the charitable donations made exceeded expectations. A local nonprofit that I’m involved with also hosted an online fundraiser. Trust me when I say the anxiety level with this decision was high. There was no way to predict if it would be a bomb or a success. They ended up surpassing last year’s fundraising goal and then some. Another pro? Costs like decorations, venue rental, and entertainment that were paid in the past were literally zero.
It’s fuel for fodder when you think about how crowded holiday parties for retail jewelers have been in the past. As a retailer, you want to make sales and have a good time with your best customers on those special evenings. However, some of our retailers have mentioned that the huge crowds of the past actually hindered sales and made the event less enjoyable for them and their customers. Again, it’s food for thought when we’re hopefully able to have larger events again.
Added convenience. Boy did the US rally to make our shopping dreams come true! I mean, who really wants to walk in when you can pick up curbside? It’s like you never used to care about the inconvenience of parking your car and walking into a store until you no longer had to. Personally, I can’t help but think it ups the ante of laziness, but hey, people invest a lot of money in using Mirror for their workouts, yet they have Alexa expend the effort it takes to stand up and lock their doors, turn on their lights, and change their TV channels, so who am I to judge? The line of bags inside brick and mortar stores for curbside pickup confirms it’s a popular choice, regardless.
Online appointment scheduling has also increased exponentially, proving that convenience, safety, and privacy are still important considerations businesses must communicate. If you’re not promoting this service, now is the time!
There Are Cons to Pros. It’s tough out there for many small businesses. Talk to those working from home and they’ll gush about the extra time they now have in the morning since they don’t have to drive to a physical office. They can quite literally roll out of bed and get to work. Thus, athleisure and sweatshirt sales have soared. Meanwhile, the vehicle service center down the street is floundering. Fewer cars on the road mean those oil changes and tire rotations have a longer time span in between them. The only way those service centers will be able to make up for lost money is to jack up their prices, and now they have to pay their people more, too, due to the hike in the minimum wage. One company’s gain is another one’s loss.
The Human Element. Of course, the pros of the above can’t be mentioned without also speaking of the cons. Sure, you’re still speaking to someone, and you can see their expression in a virtual get together. Zoom and Google Hangouts have even added features, such as the ability to raise a hand, to make our online interactions better. It’s comforting to know we can attend something that we’ve only previously done in person in an online format now. Church is a good example. When there’s a snowstorm going on outside, the option of virtual attendance anywhere is pretty nice. No gas expenditure, no slip-sliding on ice. Hopefully, this added layer of convenience is something that will stay in place, especially for the health and safety of the elderly.
It is interesting to note, though, that community is not part of the equation in a virtual world. Talk to any college student, parent of school-age children, or most employers and they’ll say they truly miss the experience of in-person interaction. College students, in particular, are struggling to understand why masked sporting events can be allowed but their graduation ceremonies, the celebratory event they’ve worked toward for four years, still have to be online. And then there’s the motivation to show up fully engaged online, which tends to wane, especially when our days are monotonous. It’s literally like waking up in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
I feel the best spot to be in the future, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. A “new normal” where masks will be a part of the past, and we’ll feel free to shake hands and hug again. Where cutout people in the stadiums and piped-in cheers will be a distant echo. Yet that new layer of online convenience for meetings and classes will be there if we want it, the one good side effect of COVID. A great option, but never again a necessity.