Retail Store Experience –Adapting to Coronavirus

12 July 2020


For the last few weeks, I had an opportunity to speak at various events about numerous behavioural and psychological considerations that retailers would find useful in creating more effective and pleasant customer experience in their retail stores, aligned with the new coronavirus-infused consumer mindset. Here are some of them.

Negative emotions – Change the Mental Channel

We are currently all living through a continuous rollercoaster of various emotions, considerable amount of them negative, e.g. fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, frustration. They vary in intensity but for many consumers they are  constant companions in this new world.

Behavioural sciences show us that in general influence of negative emotions on consumer behaviour can be quite detrimental for brands. Avoidance, negative word-of-mouth, complaints, boycotting brands, returns, or simply deciding not to buy are just some of the results.

As customers are naturally entering retail store experience with many of these negative emotions present in their mind and most of the typical safety measures indivertibly further enhancing and intensifying these emotions, retail leaders need to understand this affective cocktail and implement solutions to counteract it.

Humour has been shown to be a great way to switch mental program from fear or stress to that of delight, surprise or simply allowing ourselves to be in the moment. Of course, not every brand has a naturally embedded humour in their tone of voice nor it will be aligned with their brand DNA to introduce it. However, those that can, should take that into consideration. Simply rephrasing safety guidelines with a bit of humour can do the trick.

Grabbing customers’ attention is yet another way to change the mental channel. You can achieve that with entertainment, like Selfridges has been doing by adding a live band to play to the customers queueing up.

Uncertainty – Balance It Out

Another constant companion is uncertainty. No one knows what will happen. Will there be a second wave? Will I still have a job? Can I save my business? How should I plan for the future? These are just some questions we are all asking ourselves every day.

Uncertainty has a fairly negative influence on consumer behaviour, creating indecision, impulsiveness and lack of satisfaction. All of these effects can further evoke numerous negative emotions, which can continue the chain of negative brand effects.

So, what can a retail brand do? Sense of balance is intrinsically tied to our sense of certainty. If our bodies feel physically in balance, our mental certainty is stronger. Therefore, avoid introducing many mirrors reflecting off of each other, flashing videos, rapidly sparkling effects or wavy patterns.

Simplicity is another way to achieve feeling of certainty. Yes, it can include intuitive wayfinding, grid product layout, easy guidance/signage system, all requiring less cognitive effort. However, we would like you to go deeper and look into sensory simplicity. For example, single aroma ambient scent in the store is less confusing to customers and leaves more ‘headspace’ for making shopping decisions, resulting in higher sales, more products bought per transaction and higher overall satisfaction. It does also assist in creating higher sense of certainty. So, examine your store design for any sensory details that might require too much thinking and simplify them for now, but be sure you don’t loose your unique Sensory Brand Signature.

The Rule of Three can also bring people back into the current moment and help them make better decisions, therefore being more certain. Many business and sports organisations created their own Rule of Three to help their team members get out of the stress and pressure of thinking ‘what if’ and step into the current moment, to reduce the influence of emotions on decision making and switch on the power of deliberate thought. Creating three unique steps or questions for your customers can help them make better decisions. This initiative can then enhance their loyalty to your brand and support a long-term relationship. We have been working with Klarna on their new KlarnaSense campaign helping customers make more mindful shopping decisions. We have identified few types of shoppers and create unique to them Rule of Three to assist them in making more considered and conscious purchase decisions.

Safety is Control

As our basic need for safety is constantly threatened, our behaviours will be continuously motivated by a search for it. It is extremely beneficial for retailers to look beyond simply physical safety measures and consider emotional and psychological sense of safety.

As with everything, sense of safety is dependent on perception. There are numerous aspects of our surroundings that can impact on how safe we feel. Good threshold of crowding (both people and products) is just one of them. Currently we expect medium level of crowding allowing us to easily view everyone and everything in the space and predict how we can move in it to stay safe.

Sound has also been shown to impact on our perception of safety, with human voice or bird song frequency proven to elicit the highest sense of safety in public spaces. This is obviously reliant on the type of experience a brand creates. If it is more social and buzzing, then higher volume of conversations will be accepted. However, it needs to be lower for the current consumer mindset than the one before the pandemic, as crowds can enhance fear.

However, one of the strongest ways in which people gain sense of safety is by eliciting control over their decisions and surroundings. Allowing a customer at least an illusion of choice is one of the ways to enhance their sense of control and therefore safety. Even asking the next customer in the queue ‘Would you like to come in?’ instead of telling them ‘You may enter’ creates a sense of control.

As we are not able to try many of the products we might want to buy, we feel that some of our control has been taken away. Introducing securely sealed samples (like Lush did) or even detailed measurements for clothing on e-commerce sites are simple solutions. Beauty is one of the industries that has been considerably influenced. It’s hard to buy a make-up without checking it on your skin. Seeing it on a sales associate hand from 2 meters away isn’t an alternative. To solve that we came up with an idea of creating skin colour tainted oil-absorbing sheets which can be used as a possible alternative to a skin. Since they will be single use, the customer can ask a sales associate to sample as many products on them and then go away with these sheets and make a more informed decision.

Intimacy & Belonging

Another basic human need that has been considerably undersupplied over the last few months is belongingness. People have been separated from their friends and family or forced to spend every waking hour with them. Neither scenario delivers a healthy fulfilment of this basic need.

Therefore, another key motivation driving consumer behaviour now is the need for meaningful social contact. Whether that’s social shopping to reconnect with friends we haven’t seen for months or even an ability to create a closer bond with our favourite brand as social media chat or visiting a website just didn’t do it for us.

This is where intimacy can be the biggest winner for brands. As social distancing naturally creates higher level of privacy for in-store interactions and the hunger for deep connection with the brand is there, retailers can afford creating more intimate conversations with their customers. On top of higher satisfaction, it can result in higher engagement and loyalty. Complementary personal consultations like the ones bookable at Selfridges or Seekology are a great example. But even including a more personal questions in the typical sales associate-customer interaction could be beneficial. We like to call it ‘emotional proximity’, since the physical proximity normally representative of intimacy is temporarily discouraged.


Another way to deal with customers’ stress and anxiety yet enhance customer experience is by creating moments of escapism/indulgence/hedonism. Since research shows that when people are reminded of their mortality they are either likely to be more indulgent and impulsive or more moral and prosocial, betting on pure bliss is definitely a good tactic for some retailers.

Fun, entertainment is one way to go. Whether that’s a live band/DJ, stand-up comedian, or a scavenger hunt where instead of typical safety stickers you include some form of a game, it all serves as a way to temporarily forget the gloomy reality we are so often faced with now.

Oasis or telepresence is yet another tactic. Since we can’t travel as freely now nor we feel comfortable to do so, some form of at least imaginary or maybe virtual travel can help us gain some peace. It can mean simply adding more greenery, introducing few intimate corners or even recreating some far away or imaginary land (obviously related to your brand story) within your store. One of the main principles when we were helping Dowsing & Reynolds to create and then reopen their store in Leeds Victoria Quarter was to achieve this quiet oasis from the typically busy and vibrant shopping environments. Somewhere where customers can experience few moments of peace and quieten their minds, which makes them more open to learn about the brand story and interact with the products and the team.

Differentiation – Make it Your Own

The lockdown has granted many people a much-needed time for introspection. This led to higher self-awareness and therefore the enhanced need for individualism. However, when exploring majority of brands, customers were faced with so much similarity and so little uniqueness that they were simply left uninspired.

The need for individualism is nothing new. It has been consistently growing over the last couple of decades resulting in more niche brands gaining traction. This need has simply been intensified by the enhanced self-consciousness induced by lockdown.

Therefore, customers’ tolerance for strong similarity between brands with very little unique value being delivered by them has further decreased. Hyper uniqueness, authenticity and personalisation is something we can all expect in the coming months and years.

However, there needs to be a good balance between familiarity and difference. Retailers should still create foundations of their brands that seem familiar yet overlay them with unique differentiators. Everything is up for grabs: products, brand image, store design/experience and marketing.

This is a perfect moment for retailers to re-evaluate their brand strategies. What separates you from your competitors (personality, purpose, product etc) will be what is likely to save your business. We have been thrilled to be working with some of our clients during the last few months on reframing their brand strategies for the new world.

We do however realise this is not for everyone. A slightly easier way of achieving some differentiation now is adapting your safety strategies, signage and procedure to make them your own. Including humorous or inspiring tone of voice, building a game from safety stickers or even redesigning social distancing signs to make it aligned with your brand are simple ways of enhancing your customers’ experience.


All of the above behavioural and psychological considerations are only some of those ruling current and future consumer behaviour. Their most effective application is also dependant on your brand and customer profile.

So, feel free to call us or send us an email to chat about your specific experience and we will be excited to help you make it unique to you and effective for the coronavirus-induced consumer mindset.