It’s been clear for some time that, because of fast changing customer behaviours, retailers can no longer rely on conventional customer loyalty or traditional shopping habits to have shoppers either choose to visit or return to their stores.

Increased competition in most retail sectors in the UK, combined with an almost exponential growth in customer choice not only from where, but how and when, product can be purchased, means customer loyalty is much less tangible than twenty or thirty years ago.

Back in the 1990’s, and so before online shopping existed (although catalogue shopping was important) national retail brands such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis Partnership, Boots and Mothercare commanded huge loyalty amongst their millions of shoppers.

Now Mothercare-branded clothing, equipment, and travel products, such as pushchairs and car seats, can only be found in franchises at larger Boots stores and online. Even retail behemoths such Boots, JLP and M&S currently struggle with oversized, expensive store estates as even their most loyal customers now often make other choices.

Pre-COVID, there was a well-established group of key factors which most people recognised as influencing consumers choice of physical store, restaurant, café, bar etc. Most of these, for example, convenience, location, product choice and availability, price, as well as a range of ‘conventional’ customer service provisions, continue to be important in their decision where and when to spend money.

However, there is a new addition to this list which didn’t even exist 12 months ago. Many might argue its now the single most important consideration many consumers take into account when choosing which retail outlet to visit. That is “infection protection” – the customer’s perceived safety from the risk of COVID-19 whilst visiting a specific store.

Is a retailer doing everything it should, or could, to provide their store customers (and staff) with as much protection from the risk of virus transmission as possible? Is it implementing all the published guidelines and policing them to keep everyone as safe as possible?

I believe this new and vitally important aspect of ‘customer service’ is not only a crucial change, for obvious public health reasons, but one which represents a significant shift in attitude by customers and requires a significant change in approach from stores. I also believe it will continue to be important in shopping behaviours and consumer choice even after COVID-19 is under control.

For many consumers in the UK the choice we have of where to go for grocery, fashion, or other key areas of spend is greater than ever before. And that’s just in terms of our physical store choice, and so not even considering the myriad of online alternatives now available to most of us.

That’s why retailers need to both recognise and respond to this new loyalty factor. Over the past ten months, they have been subject (In the UK at least) to sudden changes in Government restrictions, and extensive regulations and guidelines, and lengthy periods where ‘non-essential’ retailers have had to close physical stores. As a result, it’s perhaps understandable their response and actions to ensure customer and staff protection from infection to date has been varied and reactive.

However, I am not sure that there has been much research or shopper surveys conducted so far into how well, or not, individual retailers have responded to this requirement, but I am sure the results would be informative and insightful.

They all need to do everything possible to minimise the perceived risk of infection and so reduce the emotional stress for their customers and the adverse impact that this stress might have on their customers shopping experience and loyalty. By actively demonstrating they are proactively enforcing comprehensive hygiene and healthcare protection practises both outside and inside their stores they’ll help to create that psychological calm which helps promote positive feelings towards the retail brand and store.

I really believe those retailers who fail to demonstrate this very best practice in delivering a ‘COVID-safe’ instore experience (customer service) for their customers will feel the impact in loyalty, footfall, and sales.

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Clarence Choe