Do Americans want retailers to keep their social distance after COVID-19 is gone?

Photo: Getty Images/arlutz73
Jul 02, 2020

The novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of Americans in all 50 states and U.S. territories. It has forced people to develop new habits, including how they shop for and buy goods. As it turns out, Americans like many of those changes and would like to continue taking advantage of them after COVID-19 seems like a collective bad dream that they once had.

New research from Podium, a customer messaging platform firm, shows that consumers are looking to continue buying online and either picking up orders curbside or having them delivered to their homes. Contactless payments and text reminders are also high on their continuing wish lists. The research found that 84 percent of consumers made use of these types of services during the pandemic and 86 percent plan on continuing doing so once it has passed.

“There has been steady movement towards digital transformation among local businesses in recent years, which was exponentially accelerated over the past few months,” said Eric Rea, co-founder and CEO at Podium. “Consumers have become accustomed to the new forms of communications and services, and there’s no going back.”

The percentage of customers who prioritized shopping at businesses that offered curbside pickup and other contactless services rose from 13 percent before the outbreak to 49 percent at present. The biggest jump took place among those 60 and older, with three percent finding it important before and 41 percent listing it as a priority now.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans report that services such as curbside pickup, food and grocery delivery and contactless payments led them to purchase from a local business for the first time.

Forty-three percent said local businesses that failed to offer these types of services lost sales as a result.

Eighty percent of consumers would like local businesses to continue offering curbside pickup when health safety restrictions are finally listed. Seventy-nine percent want to be able to get their orders delivered and 78 percent would like to continue using contactless payments.

While many have been pleased by the convenience and perceived safety of curbside pickup, not everyone’s experience was uniformly pleasant. Leading the list of gripes, 29 percent report having experienced unorganized service (49 percent), slow service (42 percent) or a lack of convenient communication options to coordinate easy pickup (38 percent). Two-thirds of people having a bad experience are less likely to want to test whether they will go through a repeat by purchasing from that business again.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think the impact of curbside pickup, home delivery, contactless payments and text communications has had on relationships between consumers and retailers during the pandemic? What do you see as the potential for these and other social distancing services to have on consumer/retailer relationships in the years ahead?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"New constraints imposed on how consumers want to interact with a retailer just means that retailers need to get more creative."
"Consumers have already been indicating they will choose automated pick-up options if they are available."
"I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Curbside pickup is the Grim Reaper in disguise for retail stores."

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33 Comments on "Do Americans want retailers to keep their social distance after COVID-19 is gone?"

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Mark Ryski

The multitude of service delivery options has been helpful in enabling retailers to sell to customers, but some of the many execution challenges have caused bumps and bruises to the relationship. Many of these services were already well on their way, but the pandemic has and will continue to accelerate their penetration as concerns about virus spread continue and customers look for ways to buy what they need safely. I’d also worry about what this all means to retailers’ relationships with their employees.

Dave Wendland

You’re spot on with your remarks, Mark. The blueprint for the future is written on a beverage napkin and will morph ten times over in the coming months. I believe there are three key retail imperatives: 1.) remain flexible (agility dare not be underrated); 2.) pay attention to your employee needs and; and 3.) find collaborative partners along the way who bring value and shore up uncovered gaps.

James Tenser

“Bumps and bruises.” Mark, you are pulling your punches, I think! The sudden boom in e-commerce in all its forms has exposed limitations of even the largest and most sophisticated online sellers.
More sub-standard experiences do not add up to a revolution in consumer adoption. Retailers were not ready to handle the surge in digital commerce. New online shoppers — especially in grocery — have suffered through slow deliveries, out of stocks, clumsy item substitutions, and outright errors.

I do believe shoppers will want to continue to use delivery and pickup options going forward and that those numbers will increase. The strength of that trend will depend largely on how well retailers address and improve their digital commerce and fulfillment shortcomings.

Phil Chang

I think the pandemic has accelerated what consumers have wanted and given retailers the reason to invest in change. For areas where online shopping/online research can make the consumer journey easier and equally as rewarding, I think consumers made the leap and love it. Retailers have had to change too, and we’re just at the beginning of how this changes the entire customer journey.

Don’t get me wrong – in-store retail will never go away, and there is something to be said for real versus virtual shopping, but those categories are going to keep shrinking.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
2 years 1 month ago

Where many businesses were slow to implement curbside and delivery options pre-pandemic, they have had to adapt a lot quicker if they wanted to survive in this new retail environment and they learned as they went along. This is definitely here to stay from a business and customer perspective and will continue long after a vaccine is found.
Now – adapting this fast has caused a lot of things I’ve heard about that are listed in the article: slow service, lack of inventory, disorganization, etc., but I believe these matters are being addressed and will eventually be ironed out.

Tom Erskine
2 years 1 month ago

COVID-19 has compressed three years of innovation in retail into three months. It is astounding to see how quickly digital transformation happens when it’s a requirement for retailers, not an option. Regarding curbside pickup, this new form of “drive through” retail isn’t going away, and retail space will have to change accordingly.

Lee Peterson

A study we did six years ago showed that U.S. consumers wanted curbside pick-up (BOPAS) in a big way then. Since COVID-19 has been an accelerator more than anything else, I don’t see that slowing down at all — quite the opposite. Between that and the obvious advantages of e-commerce and home delivery, the future is clear: WAY fewer physical locations (unless they’re “dark”).

Given all of the above and now the endless spiral of COVID-19, unless you’re a discounter with extraordinary logistics, having more than 100 stores looks like bad business going forward.

Neil Saunders
Have more people shopped remotely during this crisis? Absolutely. Will some of those habits stick and will remote shopping rates be higher after this is all over than they were before? Almost certainly. Does this spell the end of physical shopping? Definitely not! We need to be very careful in extrapolating current trends and shopping patterns to a post-coronavirus world. The truth always lies somewhere in between the digital advocates who think shopping in stores is doomed, and the Luddites who believe that online is some kind of aberration. The truth is that many people love shopping in person and have missed the interaction desperately. Those same people sometimes want the convenience of pre-ordering and using services like curbside collection. As such, we are moving to a future where the lines between physical and digital are completely blurred and where the store plays a multifaceted role as a place of purchase, a place of inspiration, a place of collection and returns, and a place of fulfillment. All of this will require adaptation and creative thinking… Read more »
Bob Amster

The answer is simple, those local retailers that offered curbside pick-up and home delivery have gained loyalty within their own geographic area. For many, having something ready to take home without potential coronavirus exposure, or having it delivered, has meant removing emotional stress — and not having to cook. Bottom line? Convenience! Retailers will only lose those customers if the quality of the products or service was missing.

Jeff Sward

It’s funny how habits and just sheer momentum get in the way of making changes that turn out to be both enjoyable and efficient. Retailers and customers alike are guilty of not exploring new behaviors earlier. The question becomes what are the changes that benefit BOTH retailer AND customer. A shift to more pure e-commerce may be less profitable for the retailer. So is BOPIS the shift that works for both? With new services and costs, the whole retail game just got more expensive for the retailer. What is the path to profitability that pays for all the new services? Is it better assortment planning that recognizes more is not always more?

Nikki Baird
It’s very easy to worry that these things will make it harder for retailers to sell because they limit the retailer’s ability to engage with (upsell/cross-sell) consumers. But I’ve long contended that if you make a customer’s life better, they will give you more loyalty. That includes if you make their lives safer and more convenient. Curbside pickup might result in reduced basket size, but it might translate into higher retention rates and frequency of purchase – and higher lifetime value as well. Plus there are opportunities to get creative here. I know one retailer who, if the opportunity presents itself, will have store associates call or text customers while picking the order they’re coming in to pick up to offer an upsell. It’s auto parts, so it’s a pretty easy upsell: “Hey, I saw you’re buying new wiper blades. I just wanted to check, do you need wiper fluid too?” I’m not sure that this translates to fashion, for example. But new constraints imposed on how consumers want to interact with a retailer just… Read more »
Kevin Graff

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Curbside pickup is the Grim Reaper in disguise for retail stores. Sure you might have to offer it in this new world (for now, anyway). Just know that you’re losing 20 to 50 percent in sales along the way as impulse and discovery sales drop off. Not to mention any connection with the retailer (read: staff, who are the biggest part of the brand at store level).

Classic example: I go to a hardware store at the height of COVID-19, only being able to use curbside pickup. What do I buy? The one item I went for. Next trip, I can go into the hardware store. What do I buy? The one item I went for — and four other items!

Gene Detroyer

Back in the last century when I was running consumer products businesses, a huge portion of the marketing effort was to get people to impulse purchase or fill pantries. The first company I started was geared to the exact same thing. Good for the CPG companies. Good for the retailer. But probably not so good for the consumer.

2 years 1 month ago

This is where the websites, apps, etc. have to get really good at impulse purchase offerings. Purchase history knowledge and browsing history over time will go a long way. So far, of all the online retailers I use, the one who seems to do the best job with “pointed” new that I have never bought before recommendations for impulse purchases as I browse for other items is Amazon. I have also noticed some of it with Walmart, but their suggestions seem to be more like different brands of what I am already looking at or items I previously ordered. Target is absolutely terrible with this, as are most secondary retailers I’ve ordered from online (Kroger, CVS, etc.).

Georganne Bender

When I read this headline I thought, here we go again, another survey telling us people want to order online and not shop in physical stores. I was relieved to find that it wasn’t.

Of course consumers love the convenience of curbside pickup, food and grocery delivery and contactless payments, and it makes sense that women especially like these perks. There is nothing quick about hauling kids out of the car and into a store for a quick pickup.

Here’s the thing: Once you offer a service to customers it’s hard to take it back. Curbside, delivery et al. will be with us long after the pandemic is over.

Kathleen Fischer

Consumers have already been indicating they will choose automated pick-up options if they are available. The consumer survey we did in December 2019 indicated that 38 percent would choose a retailer offering an automated pick-up process over one that didn’t offer it – only 25 percent said that it would not be a deciding factor. The pandemic has simply increased the pace at which consumers are adopting it. It is up to retailers to ensure they are offering efficient processes to continue to foster the consumer/retailer relationship.

Dave Bruno

I do suspect that curbside/contactless pickup volumes will fall once we are clear of the pandemic, but I do not expect them to completely disappear. Shopping is still a social experience for many and, once they feel safe, people will return to store shopping in greater numbers than today. However those that execute these services well (I’m looking at you, Target – incredible work on your curbside experience!), have a chance to differentiate and sustain curbside as a meaningful and not-insignificant part of their revenue mix.

Doug Garnett

Flakey research. Given that all people can envision at the moment is what we’re in at the moment, there’s no validity in asking people to predict their future behavior.

Most likely, curbside pickup and home delivery will fall back — but to a point above where they were pre-pandemic. (At least if people ever sort out curbside pickup — so far I haven’t found it effective.)

Craig Sundstrom

I agree. It seems this study concluded:

  1. Sales were lost when the only method of delivery at the moment weren’t available, and
  2. All else being equal, consumers want more choices (rather than fewer).

But of course they aren’t equal. Curbside/delivery takes money and resources and (to the extent that the store layouts/access need to be reconfigured) might make in store shopping more difficult. So let’s ask if they want these things INSTEAD … and as always, see if their actions match their claims.

Doug Garnett

Great points, Craig. And that last one is one which always bugs me. So much business (and advertising) research claims “all things being equal, X matters the most.”

Except, all things are NEVER equal. The specifics (the ideographic) matter so much in business that our constant search for rules (the nomothetic) is destined to cause more damage than it helps.

Brandon Rael

These trends and competitive forces were already in motion and scaling up well before the impacts of COVID-19 were felt. In what we now know as the “Great Acceleration,” the pandemic has sparked the need to scale up these operations far earlier than planned. The innovation imperative is out of necessity, and we are witnessing things developing at an unprecedented rate.

However, it will all come down to execution and delivering on your brand promise to retain and attract new customers. We should expect these shopping behaviors to change, as it takes nearly two months before it becomes somewhat permanent.

We long for the day when we can safely return to retail stores and have an outstanding and transporting experience. In the meantime, digital commerce rules the day.

Jeff Weidauer

Retailers have been forced into making changes they knew were necessary but weren’t ready to embrace yet. And there is no going back. Shoppers want options but don’t want to be locked into just one. The challenge is to offer the options that benefit both shopper and retailer and provide differentiating value.

Peter Charness

Bring demographics into the discussion a little and yes, chances are, older shoppers and the associated retailers will keep their distance. This shopper is more driven to purchase out of necessity and may not have bought more than they came for in-store anyways. But there’s a lot of other shoppers out there who will want it all — a quick convenient curbside pick up for some items and an in-store experience for others. In some categories impulse buying is a big, big component to sales. Discount retailing isn’t likely to go curbside or delivery in a big way either.

Rachelle King

During these times of fear and uncertainty, consumers are looking for retailers they can trust to provide essential needs and to keep them and their families safe. Retailers who can and have delivered on this during the pandemic stand to gain loyal customers post-pandemic.

Despite engagement shifting from face-to-face to contactless, consumers are now more attuned than ever to which retailers to trust during this time. Today, consumers are proving that relationships are not just about face-to-face communications but that it’s more valuable to deliver on what matters most to consumers, when they need it most, in ways that are safe, reliable and convenient for them.

Undoubtedly the pandemic has accelerated emerging services like home delivery and contactless payments. Many retailers were still working out the kinks in these services before the pandemic. While it’s more of a necessity now, it will be a valued convenience later that retailers need to be prepared to deliver on. Exceedingly.