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3 Ways Merchants Are Responding to COVID-19

checkout lane with COVID-19 social distancing signage

At Level 10, we work side by side with retailers and restaurant operators as they enact changes to attract and engage their customers. Never have those changes been more dramatic than since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That close perspective provides us with unique insights into what works and what doesn’t, and how to make decisions now that will serve these businesses no matter what comes next.

Here are three areas where the right choices can help bring back customers and drive success, today and into retail’s unknown future.

1. Operationalizing Safety

In the early days of the pandemic, retailers permitted to continue operating stores scrambled to secure safety and sanitization supplies, from personal protective equipment (PPE) to plexiglass barriers to signage and extra cleaning supplies.

But now that many stores have been reopened for some time, those social distancing signs are starting to wear out, sensitive technology has been wiped down again and again, and a sense of urgency has fallen away.

It’s easy for other concerns to take priority. But this is no time to take focus off of safety and cleanliness. Consumers are still paying attention and making their shopping choices accordingly. Late summer research by Accenture found the initiatives consumers name as most important to get them back in a store are availability of hygiene products for public use, visibility of cleaning and sanitation, and staff required to wear masks/gloves. The first two have the strongest track record in actually getting consumers back into public spaces.

To continue being a safe place where consumers feel comfortable shopping, assign clear accountability for meeting elevated cleanliness standards in every store. This includes replacing worn or missing signage, incorporating enhanced cleaning and safety steps into new hire training, and checking technology equipment to be sure it’s being safely cleaned and protected and is functioning properly.

2. Rethinking the Drive-Thru

The popularity of transacting purchases from the car has already been rising. Before the pandemic, the number of convenience store retailers with drive-thru was set to more than double, according to Convenience Store News. In restaurants, drive-thru visits increased by 26% and represented 42% of all restaurant visits during April, May and June, 2020, according to The NPD Group.

Several quick service restaurants have unveiled new formats that minimize interior spaces in favor of more outdoor services; Taco Bell’s “Go Mobile” concept includes dual drive-thrus, curbside pickup and “bellhops” to facilitate these operations, and Burger King’s new drive-in areas feature multi-lane drive-thrus, external walk-up windows, pickup lockers and dedicated parking spaces for curbside delivery. Shake Shack, Dunkin’ and Panera quickly added curbside as the pandemic took hold.

Technology is a key enabler in these formats. Restaurant operators may need to reconfigure digital menu boards and outdoor digital signage so it can be seen from more locations; some have placed extra bright signage in windows with QR codes on them so customers can easily navigate to ordering apps from the parking lot. Chick-fil-A boosted downloads of its mobile app by 14% by showing a QR code in its digital signage.

Drive-thru operators also need to think through how outdoor workers will manage their portable devices. They not only need robust WiFi or 5G access; they also need holsters, aprons or other solutions to manage a tablet, printer, printed menu and other accessories.

3. Leveraging Mobile and Contactless Payment

We’ve had a number of retail and hospitality customers accelerate their mobile projects in response to the pandemic. They’re doing so to cope with the significant operational changes they’ve made. Retail, for example, has seen a massive surge in curbside pickup, prompting even non-grocers such as Vitamin Shoppe and 7-Eleven to add Instacart to their offerings.

Store associates need mobile devices to pick digital orders, manage a backlog of markdowns and discounts, queue bust and offer higher service levels to deliver a better store experience for consumers who do venture indoors. Retailers are also using mobile to comply with COVID restrictions and keep staff and customers safe, such as using occupancy management and social distancing apps. Restaurant workers need mobile devices to take orders in parking lots and drive-thru queues.

A related trend is a surge in demand for contactless payment. According to a new National Retail Federation and Forrester survey, the number of retailers accepting contactless cards surged 40% from last year, to 58%, and 67% of retailers accept some form of no-touch payment.

Many retailers already have contactless functionality built into payment terminals; now they need to upgrade their software to accommodate this demand. But for those who don’t, it’s time to make a move — the NRF also found 94% of retailers anticipate demand for contactless payment to continue increasing.

Getting a fleet of new contactless payment or mobile devices into stores quickly and efficiently requires precise planning and execution, so many merchants are turning to Level 10 for our deep experience in these rollouts.

While it’s important to move fast to keep up by adopting these critical technologies, it’s also important to do so with the future in mind, making tech choices that integrate well with existing equipment, support and maintenance approaches. That’s where our expertise can help.

To learn more about how we can help you effectively adapt to the ever-changing retail landscape, contact us today.