It has been one month since Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune, the popular New York City restaurant, published an op-ed in The Times that set the conversation on the future of the hospitality business ablaze. Since then, restaurants have become the epicenter of the imploding experience economy, and some of the most visible business casualties of our current crisis. But even with news of restaurants and bars closing in cities every day, Hamilton was not completely pessimistic about their future. “I know few of us will come back as we were,” she wrote. “And that doesn’t seem to me like a bad thing at all; perhaps it will be a chance for a correction.”
What will these corrections look like, not only for restaurants, but for all kinds of businesses? We are about to encounter stark changes to environments that we used to take for granted. Mapping these out can help us navigate this future together, and adjust our marketing strategies to meet the changing currents of life and commerce.
Many of the challenges facing businesses on their return to normal boil down to design problems — especially when it comes to rearranging our working and living spaces to accommodate regulations and social distancing measures. For the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, this also means adapting to shifting consumer wants and needs.
Various design solutions that have been floated in the architectural community suggest new social lifestyles and priorities. Besides separating desks and seating in offices, the list of demands brought to life by the coronavirus pandemic includes calls for:
- More access to fresh air and green spaces in our homes and offices through balconies, courtyards, and indoor greenery.
- Interior spaces dedicated to activities like exercise and meditation to promote physical and mental wellness.
- Homes with separate living and working environments that help us mediate our work/life balance, and which provide privacy from cohabitants.
- Wider sidewalks and pedestrianized streets that will accommodate social distancing, and which can resurrect retail districts.
While some of these visions will be realized in the longer term, we can expect people to demand greater privacy, breathing room, and sanitary experiences immediately — especially when it comes to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
TJX Companies — owner of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods — has already reopened over 1,600 of its stores around the world, giving us a sneak preview of the retail world to come. Within their stores, customers are expected to wear masks and to follow directional signage, as well as to follow directions from employees on limiting physical touchpoints. Since many of their stores remain closed, however, TJX Companies is also relying more on online sales.
“The increase in online shopping is not unique to them,” says Laura Emanuel, VP and Director of Public Relations at Brownstein. “Online shopping in general was up 49% in April as compared to March. But what is unique is that they are also limiting how many orders they will accept online each day to maintain inventory flows and to meet their ability to serve orders.”
For Emanuel, this is indicative of how changes in physical retail will influence online retail, and how it will force brick-and-mortar businesses — which often rely on the experience of browsing, trying on, or sorting through products — to recreate, or better align, their online experiences with their in-store sales models. Changes are also evident on physical shelves. Many clothes retailers are asking associates to fold clothes in ways that minimize touch-points, and are focusing on creating comforting, spacious environments where customers won’t be afraid to spend time. Sales are prevalent across departments in order to encourage the turnover of stocked goods and to kickstart revenue.
In addition to what retailers are doing to innovate, their landlords are also envisioning ways in which to support their clients — particularly in public settings like enclosed shopping centers and malls. [BG Client] PREIT, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that owns and operates multiple malls in the Philadelphia region (including Fashion District Philadelphia) is establishing enhanced curbside pickups and exploring opportunities for virtual sidewalk sales. Their Shop Local digital hub was recently launched to promote small businesses across its portfolio, encouraging people to continue supporting local businesses.
Finally, many grocery stores like [BG Client] The GIANT Company have instituted multiple COVID-19 best practices, including at-risk shopping hours for the elderly and immunocompromised, and have also implemented in-store operational changes, including check-out partitions and one-way aisles.
Directional signage, greater sanitary measures, and limited touchpoints will also be a focus of the hospitality industry. Last week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) introduced its Safe Stay guidelines, developed under the guidance of an advisory council that includes Continental Hotels Group, Marriott International, and The Walt Disney Company. The guidelines cover stringent regulations to ensure the health of employees and guests. On arriving at a hotel or resort in the near future, you can expect a stack of PPE to be placed on your bedside table, along with the customary box of chocolates.
We are all cautiously eager to return to our favorite restaurants and shop at our favorite stores, to live in a world where we can make distant travel plans and enjoy public spaces with others. But the transitional period between now and a return to “normal” will be full of discouraging reminders that things might never be the same. As marketers, we have to provide the reassurance and guidance needed to support a renewal in consumer confidence in brands — and communicate these changes as necessary to creating better, more social, and safe commercial experiences in the future.