As we put 2020 in the rearview mirror, it’s time to begin looking at the long-term impacts that enduring a pandemic have imposed on retail businesses, which often includes not just stores but also banks, gyms, and other businesses that serve walk-in customers.

We can already see how consumer shopping habits have changed in just a year. Many small businesses lack the liquidity to withstand months of being shuttered, so they have found creative ways to engage customers. Between Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, numerous local stores found a platform to keep customers interested in their products and services, while focusing and fine-tuning their e-commerce efforts. You can probably think of at least three stores you follow on social media that offered (or are still offering) curbside pick-up to bolster their business, while waiting for restrictions to be eased and shoppers to venture outdoors again.

According to the National Retail Federation, “The biggest takeaway from 2020 is the shift to e-commerce; consumers have embraced online shopping with vigor and retailers have responded with the speedy rollout of new technologies.”

Retailers should consider how sustainable these pandemic-borne business practices may be when progressing through 2021 and beyond. How will small businesses justify more expenditures in order to move into the nebulous “post-COVID” era? Some organizations are able to continue long-term funding of pandemic-adjacent needs quite easily. These include municipal governments, whose operations are funded by tax dollars and intergovernmental transfers. Tax dollars are still being collected, albeit at a reduced rate. It is also more likely that government employees are able to continue working from home, whereas the nature of retail compels employees to work in an in-person environment.

Items that immediately spring to mind as both short- and long-term investments include hazard pay and PPE for employees, additional disinfecting products or services, and technology like digital signage and virtual queuing systems. These investments may be must-haves  for many  businesses until some time in 2022, but customers may continue to prefer the more hygienic and structured practices well after that. Indeed, shoppers may even seek out the convenience of e-commerce, curbside pick-up, and virtual queuing for long after the pandemic has stopped making headlines.  

Di Di Chan, President of FutureProof Retail, projects that the trends with the strongest staying power are those that are easy to implement, simple to maintain, and generate enough ROI. For example, outsourced delivery services, touch-free scan and go mobile checkout, and mobile payments are a few solutions that may remain in demand long past the pandemic. In contrast, solutions that take a lot of manual effort to keep up will have a higher churn rate once they’re no longer a necessity.

While many businesses have closed their doors for good -- in some cases, after decades of being staples in their communities -- there is hope. Almost a quarter of 3,500 business owners surveyed feel optimistic about the future. The light at the end of the tunnel may be a pinpoint now, but we are drawing closer. Though the endpoint will look different than what came before, both small and large retailers are adapting quickly. Consumers have already noticed many of the changes and are engaging in them seamlessly. It’s now just a matter of these COVID-era practices becoming standard practices.

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