GDR’s blueprint for physical retail in the Covid era

Jun 17, 2020

As non-essential stores across the UK reopened this week after almost three months out of action, we explore the ways that retailers are responding to the new challenges of the social distancing era and what it all means for the future of physical retail.

The challenges facing physical retail before the waking nightmare that is 2020 have been plain to see for a long time. The clichés about it might be overwrought and sensationalist, but the direction of travel has certainly been disconcerting. According to the British Retail Consortium, 2019 was the worst year on record for retailers in the UK. In the US as elsewhere, bricks-and-mortar stores have been losing ground year in, year out to e-commerce, and a recent report from eMarketer forecasts that it could take five years for store sales to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The ways that stores have approached reopening and implemented new social distancing measures have been fascinating because in many ways what we’ve seen is a microcosm of the much broader challenges to physical retail that have played out over the past two decades. Some of the worst aspects of physical retail, from waiting in line to joylessly functional, transactional experiences have returned out of sheer necessity.

Yet we’ve seen several retailers respond to the unprecedented challenges of reopening under social distancing conditions in ways that perfectly align with the principles that GDR has promoted for physical retail’s survival over the last few years. Together, these responses offer a blueprint to navigate the stormy waters of physical retail in 2020, and reflect an attitude to innovation that is fundamental to retail’s way of thinking at all times. Here is the GDR blueprint for physical retail in the Covid era:


1) Amplify your points of differentiation

There are lots of new features in-store to help keep customers and associates safe; Perspex screens at checkouts, black and yellow floor markers spaced two metres apart and signage all throughout stores explaining how to shop safely. While many stores have installed generic materials to this purpose, others have used them as an opportunity to let their personalities shine.

Apple, for example, has introduced a flourish of its trademark high-tech approach to retail by using contactless devices that quickly take the temperatures of customers as they enter the store in a non-invasive way.

Apple Brent Cross

Skincare company Lush has placed a large poster at the front of its Brent Cross store explaining the store’s changes that’s full of beautiful illustrations and the brand’s warm and playful tone of voice. This includes the addition of colourful face masks on its trademark ‘made with love’ signs.

Waterstones in Hampstead, meanwhile, has used wooden fixtures for the screens at its checkouts and its hand sanitisers, making measures that usually feel so antithetical to a warm store experience fit in seamlessly with the look and feel of the bookshop’s interior.

Elsewhere, Kurt Geiger has fully integrated its We Are One campaign supporting the NHS into its store’s communication and product offer. The colourful promotion could be seen across digital screens, windows and POS in-store, with staff also wearing campaign-specific shirts and masks that could be bought online.

Kurt Keiger

Finally, Penhaligon’s perfume store deploys wit and brand character in its looped video on safety measures – as far removed from hospital-style messaging as it’s possible to get.

As predominantly negative signage and restrictive protocols detract from the traditional in-store experience, these brands stood out as more positive and playful, normalising measures that are very much not normal.


2) Seamlessly integrate your online and offline offers


A strong omnichannel offering has long been imperative for retailers, but never more so than at a time when access to stores is limited and capacities are far below their usual levels. Those that have long had healthy online-offline integrations have been much better placed to offer a better in-store experience. John Lewis, through its sister supermarket Waitrose, and Argos through parent company Sainsbury’s, have been able to offer click-and-collect services at supermarkets across the UK throughout the pandemic, while Selfridges has been driving its sales shoppers to make their purchases online since opening so that stores are as efficient as they can be, despite reduced capacity.

Others have brought in new measures in recent weeks to improve the customer experience and reduce wait times while still observing social distancing. Curry’s PC World has introduced a ‘drive-thru’ service to some of its stores in which several parking bays have been designated for customers to come and collect their online orders. Once they’ve arrived, the customer simply scans a QR code on a sign in their bay to let the store know they’re there, and opens the car’s trunk, allowing a store associate to deliver their order without any physical contact.

Luxury Italian fashion brand Pinko fundamentally rethought its path to purchase for its UK customers during lockdown. It hosted livestreams from its boutiques showing models wearing its clothes. If customers wanted to buy anything from the livestreams they could book a private appointment at their nearest store and Pinko would send out a taxi to take them there and bring them back home again.


3) Empower your store associates

Best Buy Appointment Only

With fewer customers inside stores at any one time and an imperative to help customers find what they need as efficiently as possible, a number of retailers have reopened with a renewed focus on the role of their store associates. While many stores are relying on signage to inform customers about new measures, others have taken it as an opportunity to provide a deeper and more personal shopping experience.

Burberry on Regent Street, for example, is assigning a store associate to each customer as they browse the store, effectively elevating the role of the store associate to a personal concierge. While that may not be too surprising given Burberry’s luxury status, retailers operating at a much lower price point have been working to a similar principle. Associates at Hobbycraft have been welcoming customers as they enter the store, directing them to the products that they are looking for and explaining the store’s social distancing guidelines to them.

Offering such a relationship may present a bigger challenge once limits on customer numbers are lifted, but store associates play a vital role in differentiating physical retail from ecommerce, and so it’s incredibly promising that retailers are using this period to focus on the human connection between their staff and their customers.

Corie Barry, Chief Executive of US retailer Best Buy, which has been implementing an appointment-only admissions policy during lockdown, said: “What we’re seeing from customers is that they actually feel like they have more time to ask more questions, and our associates, more importantly, are offering more fulsome solutions. They are focused on one customer’s needs. This leaves lots of room for more complex conversations.”


4) Double down on the right technology


One of the silver linings of Covid-19’s impact on retail is that it has encouraged retailers to experiment with and expand the roll-out of technologies that pre-date the pandemic. US beauty retailer Ulta found a ready-made solution to the question of product trial with its GlamLab virtual try-on technology. As product testers pose a risk of transmitting the virus, Ulta is steering its customers to download the GlamLab app and test its products virtually instead whether they’re at-home, or in-store. Usage of the app has increased by 400% during lockdown.

Sports retailer Decathlon has brought mobile checkout powered by MichiPay into all 81 stores in Germany, meaning customers can shop without the need for any physical contact with staff or self-checkouts. Beyond Germany the retailer’s pre-existing RFID-powered self-checkouts, which instantly scan all items dropped into a box, also offer an efficient contactless solution. Ulta and Decathlon each demonstrate the renewed value of pre-existing technologies and highlight the fact that now, more than ever, is the time for retailers to explore the ways that technology can solve problems in their stores.


5) Create a feast for the senses

The Little Italy, Paris

Lastly, but arguably most importantly, one of the biggest ways that Covid-19 has disrupted physical retail is by making it so much harder to provide the experience-led offering that stores have been pivoting towards in recent years. The result is stores reverting back to the dull, transactional customer journeys that have been integral to their decline.

Despite this, physical retail remains uniquely placed to provide the richest buying experience that can captivate consumers’ senses by combining the sight, smell and touch of products. We’ve seen some great examples recently in Paris where cafes and shops are bringing the inside of their spaces outside. Florists’ flowers have spilled onto the street, and displays of food and wine have been brought outside to tempt customers inside. It not only appeals to the senses, but also differentiates physical stores from other channels, and this type of engagement must be leveraged as much as possible to entice shoppers off the sofa and out of the house.

We can’t simply hope to re-create what was once ‘normal’ in an already changed society that has discovered new ways of shopping, or expect an already declining high street to ‘bounce back’ with reduced traffic full of customers with less disposable income. Retailers need to re-consider a new world for physical shoppers; one that is full of engagement, service and experience.

For example, think about the queues and how they can be fun or used for sampling, demos and 1:1 engagement. Consider your communication and selling approach and focus on why it’s worth the shoppers’ effort (and possible health risk) to be back in a physical space. Lush in Brent Cross couldn’t bring shoppers into their limited space, so instead, created a counter at the entrance to the shop where they gave an engaging demo of their naturally antiseptic soap.

It’s important to note that the absence of in-store cafes, anywhere to sit down, or feed babies and limited, or no access to toilets limits the amount of time shoppers can spend out browsing and shopping. So this week’s retail reopening in the UK was impaired and somewhat limited by practical needs. The fun, communal atmosphere and compulsion to dwell or the ability to socialise were unfortunately absent. We can hope that as these measures are reintroduced, the thrill and joy of shopping will return and the key for retailers will be to provide experiences and/or products that customers simply can’t get elsewhere.


If you’re interested in talking to us in more detail about any of the examples or themes discussed, or would like to discuss how we can support your new retail approach or strategy, we’re here to help. Get in touch with

News & insights straight to your inbox!