Thanks almost exclusively to Covid-19, the retail store of the future needs to arrive much quicker than previously anticipated. Rising expectations stemming from enhanced shopping conveniences, combined with consumers' growing concerns surrounding health and safety, have changed what the in-store concept needs to deliver. Now, more than ever, retailers are competing for consumers based on the experience they provide, and e-commerce is playing a crucial role in supporting those efforts.

1. Put safety first.

Twenty-nine percent of consumers would stop shopping at a retailer altogether if they knew the brand was not implementing health and safety measures. That's according to new data from Ipsos' Consumer Health & Safety Index, a benchmarking study that evaluates how retailers are operating during the pandemic. The same study found that the importance of health and safety protocols increased from 42 percent in May to 48 percent in early July, solidifying it as the most important factor for returning to a store.

Addressing consumers' concerns about virus exposure can and should be accomplished at the in-store level as well as online. Physical retail experiences should be deliberately designed to reduce physical contact with people and products, such as with interactive 3-D in-store displays that offer shoppers a more accurate visualization and knowledge of a product before purchasing.

Meanwhile, digital resources and interactions can be leveraged to build brand awareness and drive foot traffic--for example, by promoting a touchless retail experience or by adding store cleanliness and safety as a category for online reviews.

2. Make retail an event.

"Destination shopping," "retailtainment," "experiential retail"--whatever you call it, if people are going to potentially risk their health to visit a store, the trip needs to be made worth their while. Today, retailers should be thinking about how to transform the in-store experience by creating environments and experiences that make shopping feel like a destination. What are you offering people that they can't get from their couch, or at least not only from their couch?

The shift to experience-focused retail is nothing new. In 2015, Toms used VR headsets to virtually transport customers in 100 stores to Peru to see the impact of the shoe company's giving campaign on local people. But the growing expectation for immersive retail experiences in this industry is undeniable; 46 percent of respondents in Dotcom Distribution's e-commerce consumer survey reported that activities under the experiential retail umbrella were important to them. Whether with VR, AR, a scavenger hunt, rewards program, or what have you, integrate the brick-and-mortar and online shopping experience.

3. Embrace growth and change.

Starbucks is installing more mobile pickup counters, Chipotle is building more drive-thrus, Lululemon acquired Mirror to engage more people in fitness at home--the point is, retail is in a remodeling stage. Now is the time to research, embrace, and invest in business models, tools, and technologies that offer value and increase efficiency as things continue to shift. 

The same 3-D product visualization technology used for retail displays is certainly featured in e-commerce portals for standalone use, but can also be utilized for cross-channel efficiencies. While looking at displays or browsing shelves, shoppers can use their own cell phones and tablets for a safe, convenient, seamless in-store shopping experience. For instance, by using 3-D or AR technology provided by the retailer, a person looking for a sectional couch can see a brand's in-store display as is, and then visualize different configurations, or swap in accessories and other design options.

Merchandising still has as much influence as it ever did, but in this on-demand world with endless options, customers get to select exactly the products they want and purchase them however they choose.

4. Keep omnichannel on point.

There is little more frustrating to an online shopper than completing a purchase for in-store or curbside pickup, only to get an email or call informing them that the item is, in fact, not in stock. Whether for the inconvenience or poor management, it's a path to losing customers.

Having a robust inventory-management strategy separates the winners from the losers here. By using the same inventory-management software to house your physical retail locations and e-commerce channels, there is total real-time inventory level visibility on the back end and front end. Syncing up fulfillment across all channels manages customer expectations, which can help retain and increase the rate of returning customers, reduce customer service call volume, negative social media chatter and online reviews, and free up store associates who would otherwise be addressing inconsistencies and fielding disgruntled customers.   

There are no silos anymore. Developments in technology already had us on this path, and the coronavirus has catapulted the timeline forward. Consumers have adapted to the new normal of identifying what they need and want without any physical interaction. Having an e-commerce experience that complements the in-store experience is where the magic happens now.