Last updated:

As stores shut down to combat the rise of COVID-19, ecommerce sales went through the roof. Consumers stayed home for months, clicking their way through products and pushing U.S. ecommerce sales to spike 33.6% in 2020 alone. However, with massive investments in physical real estate, some retailers are primed to get consumers back into stores in 2021. Thanks to a swift vaccine rollout and growing optimism, there’s a clearer path to that rosy future — and much of it revolves around experiential shopping.

Already a powerful differentiation tool in pre-pandemic life, experiential shopping will become an even bigger factor in determining retail’s winners and losers in 2021 and beyond. With this tool, retailers can turn a simple shopping trip into an unforgettable experience, filled with live entertainment and high-touch activations like the Museum of Ice Cream or the House of Vans in London.

Are You Experienced?

There’s no question consumers are salivating at the idea of returning to traditional in-store experiences. As the pandemic has shown us, the value of personal attention may be far greater than we gave it credit. Much like how a zoom call can’t replace time spent with loved ones, online shopping can’t fully replace the ability to try on and physically interact with products in person. 

According to 451 Research, almost half of all consumers said they would immediately begin shopping at retail stores once most of the dangers surrounding COVID-19 were minimized. Only 16.8% said it would take longer than three months after restrictions were lifted to return.

To capture that early contingent, retailers have started to plot their experiential shopping schemes. Dick’s Sporting Goods unveiled a prototype store outfitted with an athletic field and a rock-climbing wall. Target is creating miniature shops-within-a-shop to highlight goods in partnership with Apple and Disney. Sephora now offers appointments with beauty advisors for personal makeup workshops.

Otherwise, shopping centers, hit hard by the retail apocalypse over the last decade, are at the forefront of transforming their spaces into experiences. Across the country, malls have been leveraged into event spaces complete with Instagrammable selfie stations, virtual reality pods, and luxury movie theaters. If there was an experience you couldn’t get online, you can bet the nation’s malls thought about adjusting their extra space to suit it over the last few years.

Keep in mind, 88.6% of all retail sales still happened in stores before the pandemic. It’s safe to say that a healthy portion of those sales can still be made in 2021, so there’s no reason to think retail is dead — especially as experiential shopping takes hold again.

The Experiential Differential

It’s worth noting that experiential shopping has taken on a slightly different meaning in the COVID-19 era. For starters, outdoor areas are more valuable than ever. When lockdown hit, businesses that ferried consumers outside were more likely to survive — and this al fresco trend is expected to continue as many are still wary of indoor spaces.

Similar to how restaurants served diners via temporary sidewalk installations, experts see experiential retail succeeding with pedestrian-friendly browsing and drive-in service. Brands with easy access to outdoor spaces will have a leg up during the early days of post-pandemic life.

Plus, time spent away from stores may make the consumer’s heart grow fonder. Fresh technology like augmented reality, educational marketing, and celebrity appearances will feel like a breath of virus-free air to the post-COVID consumer. Before the pandemic, a Klarna study reported that 35% of consumers agreed that an enjoyable in-store experience would make them more likely to go shopping. Another 30% said they would purchase more too. 

The hope is that this enthusiasm will translate into life after COVID-19 as people anxious to leave their homes look for excitement past their doorstep.

Experiential shopping, pop-ups, and product giveaways were on the rise pre-COVID as a way to limit the negative effect online shopping was having on in-store sales. As the pandemic hit, investment in experiential retail nearly halted as marketing budgets turned toward digital channels. But now, in the near term, it appears that trend will reverse as more companies invest in what some see as the future of in-store shopping.

The Cheese at the End of the Maze 🧀

Much like a mouse enticed to the end of a maze by a piece of cheese, consumers need the right motivation to be lured back into the real world. But deciding what that should be for a given customer can get challenging. 

That’s where technology like customer targeting comes in, which helps businesses determine what may appeal to their consumers. It’s important to remember that after more than a year of online shopping, most consumers today expect some level of personalization. 

A survey conducted by marketing firm, Epsilon, found that 80% of consumers say they’re more likely to do business with a company if it offers personalized services, such as providing coupons based on their physical location.

Looking Toward a Digital Future

Brick-and-mortar stores can feature the same AI-driven product recommendations that are ubiquitous in the online shopping world — and with targeting technology, in-store assistants can pass on these recommendations at the point of sale. Combined with the ability to actually see the recommended product in person, in-store targeting may help close the gap between physical and digital channels.

Then there’s Amazon Go, a completely automated shopping experience, which represents a new kind of retail suited for post-pandemic life. Consumers register their presence in the store on their mobile device and grab the products they want. Instead of checking out, they can then simply leave the store and their accounts are charged automatically.

Apart from minimizing contact that most certainly appeals to the COVID-conscious consumer, attaching technology like RFID and bluetooth tags to products may also increase the amount of customer data collected in-store. 

In the age of traditional retail, it was close to impossible to attribute a purchase to an individual consumer without first convincing them to make an account with your company. After the pandemic and with online shopping at an all-time high, marketing technology can identify customer profile lookalikes, drive traffic and messaging to the right consumers, and build your brand with advanced audience targeting.

Want to better target your consumers post-COVID? AdRoll can help.

Author

Angie is the Content Marketing Manager at AdRoll. Prior to AdRoll, she was a Content Writer at various digital marketing agencies. A writer by day and a reader by night, Angie’s other hobbies include cooking and learning useless movie trivia.