More than masks: 7 ways coronavirus changed how we shop

It wasn’t too long ago that a shopper would go into a store, been hit by the aroma of cleaning fluids, and wonder what was wrong.

“Is there a health issue here?” might run through the consumer’s mind.

Today, that same harsh smell of chlorine could bring relief as a sign that the store owner is focused on cleanliness. How retailing has changed in a matter of weeks.

“What was once off-putting is now comforting,” says Eric Spangenberg, dean of the UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business and a professor of marketing and psychological science.

To Spangenberg, coronavirus created an almost permanent retooling of how people shop. Anybody dealing with consumers better be quick to adapt. There will be no return to old shopping habits any year soon.

“It’s not a new normal. Normal is what we now talk about,” he says.

A significantly large slice of the consuming public will worry about contracting the virus out in public. That means local brick-and-mortar shopping will suffer.

“We’re not going to see a bounce back to a healthy retail economy in the short term or the medium term,” the dean says. “Going out to shop is just not going to be as enjoyable.”

The smell of a store is one example of the big challenges facing retailers. But almost every facet of how a retail location operates should be under review.

“What cues will enhance the shopping experience?” he says merchants should be asking themselves.

Masks have drawn the spotlight as research shows face coverings as a key part of the health solution for merchants. Requiring masks of staff and customers sends a strong visual message that a store is concerned about health, the dean says.

And, yes, there are potential — and often loud — customers who don’t like masks.

“If retailers want to regain customers, they need to make people safe,” he says.

Other than smells, here’s six big changes Spangenberg sees for the brick-and-mortar retailer.

Crowd management

Ah, remember the joy of an eatery or pub packed with diners or a bustling shopping center filled with consumers?

What was once a sign of success could now scare off a chunk of the populace. This makes how merchants handle crowds — from better passageways to limits on how many shoppers or diners can enter — a game-changer.

It’s a riddle with no easy answer. But Spangenberg says retailers have to learn how to satisfy customers who think “If I can avoid the crowd, I’ll avoid it.”

Stockpiling logic

Toilet paper. Bottled water. Bread. Meats.

Bulk buying early in the pandemic wasn’t as illogical as some saw it. Southern Californians were ill-prepared for a calamity while dining in went from rarity to routine when “stay at home” was the norm.

“Hot product” has new meaning in the coronavirus world because stocking up helps ease various fears.

“We have a desire to exert control,” he says. “One way is to stockpile.”

Less retail therapy

Merchants must be aware that the virus killed one consumer lure: retail was once relaxing.

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Many shoppers will shop less in stores because much of the fun is gone. Everything from masked staff and customers to other safety procedures will dull what was once a pleasurable experience.

Shopping can be a “logical coping mechanism” but the virus makes it “no longer therapeutic because of the stressors,” he says.

More outdoor consuming

Open spaces are safer than tight quarters when it comes to juggling virus risks.

That will translate to what shopping centers we frequent, Spangenberg says. Patio dining will be favored over being inside. And indoor malls will be challenged.

“An outdoor center like Fashion Island (in Newport Beach) will see a return of traffic faster than a South Coast Plaza,” Spangenberg says of the giant, traditional mall in Costa Mesa.

Middle gets squeezed

The giant, all-purpose merchants that let consumers accomplish many chores under one roof should continue to do well.

Even much smaller stores could prosper, either offering speed and convenience or niche products or services.

“Mom-and-pop specialty stores could do well,” Spangenberg says.

In between, there’s serious trouble. For example, traditional department stores, long a troubled retailing segment, will only get worse.

“Retail’s middle will get squeezed,” he says.

Irrational behavior

In the pandemic era, people will be making numerous shopping choices based on seemingly illogical or false assumptions.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It will dramatically alter consumer spending habits — from what is bought or how folks shop.

Successful merchants will try to educate customers. But brick-and-mortar retailers must adapt, too.

“There is a lot of irrational behavior, but it is real to retailers,” Spangenberg says.