The coronavirus has changed life in just about every aspect, including shopping. Many retailers with a brick-and-mortar presence have been able to shift to serving customers solely online, but essential businesses like Target and Costco have been forced to quickly adapt to new safety protocols to protect customers and employees.
Some restrictions have eased up and will continue to do so, but as consumers get used to these thoughtful safety measures, they may want them to stick around. Here’s a glimpse at how shopping could be different forever.
Last updated: Sept. 20, 2021
Young Children Not Allowed in Stores
Taking your child with you to run errands might become a thing of the past. In fact, some stores have already instituted this rule.
Wisconsin-based home improvement store Menards banned shoppers under the age of 16 at one point, requiring anyone who looked younger than 16 to show identification. Per the company website, Menards has lifted this ban, noting that children are now “welcome.”
Mandatory Face Masks
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was some confusion regarding who should wear face masks. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends people wear cloth face coverings in public settings, where social distancing guidelines can be difficult to maintain.
Consequently, many stores have followed suit, requiring shoppers to wear masks. For example, effective May 4, Costco requires all shoppers — except children under age 2 and individuals with a medical condition who cannot wear a mask — to wear a face covering that shields their mouth and nose at all times while in the store. Apple also requires masks in its stores, as does Publix.
In the pre-pandemic world, shoppers didn’t think twice about congregating in small spaces. However, now that the CDC recommends staying at least 6 feet apart from other people, stores have had to adjust.
For example, Target has implemented signage, floor decals and audio messages in stores reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart. Even when it’s seemingly safe to go back to normal, many customers might be uncomfortable narrowing the distance between themselves and fellow shoppers.
Buying Limits on In-Demand Items
It’s no secret that some shoppers have been hoarding in-demand items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. As a result, some retailers have limited the number of hot-ticket items people can purchase per visit.
For example, Costco is currently restricting select fresh meat purchases to three packages per member. Kroger Co. is also limiting customers to certain quantities when purchasing high-demand items.
This makes sense, as 47% of consumers are stocking up on essential items, with 78% doing so because it makes them feel “safer,” according to Shopkick. Buying limits on certain items could become the new standard, as the pandemic might leave people with a hoarding mentality.
Online Shopping Becomes the Preferred Form
Brick-and-mortar stores were already feeling the crunch as consumer interest veered to online. In 2019, the so-called “retail apocalypse” saw 9,300 stores shutter. The pandemic pushed this trend of online buying over the edge. Total U.S. online sales reached $73.2 billion in June this year, up 76.2% compared with $41.5 billion a year earlier, Adobe Analytics reported. E-commerce purchases of virus protection items — such as hand sanitizers, gloves, masks and antibacterial sprays — surged 817%, Adobe found.
Post-pandemic, it’s likely this trend will continue. People might determine online shopping is the easiest, most efficient way to get the items they want or need.
Plexiglass at Cash Registers
Retailers have been working hard to provide at least 6 feet of space between people in store locations, but this isn’t possible at most cash registers. Consequently, this is the most dangerous part of a store, according to CNN.
Many retailers have installed plexiglass at cash registers to create a protective barrier between customers and employees. Trader Joe’s and The Home Depot are among the retailers that have taken this measure.
If it’s deemed effective, this feature could be here to stay after the pandemic, because COVID-19 isn’t the only virus out there. Plexiglass could help protect customers and employees from other illnesses, such as the common cold and stomach flu.
Temperature Checks for Everyone
Many employers require employees to have temperature checks at the door — an additional measure to ensure safety and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
For example, Amazon is conducting temperature checks on its U.S. and European operations network and Whole Foods Market employees daily. Those with a fever are asked to go home and wait to return to work until their fever has been gone for at least three days.
Not just for employees, Connecticut grocer LaBonne’s Market performs temperature checks on everyone who enters its stores. Many restaurants that have reopened for dine-in service are also checking customer’s temperatures, according to the Associated Press.
This might become standard practice, as fevers can indicate a viral infection that can be contagious.
Limited Number of People Allowed in Stores
Crowded areas are breeding grounds for the coronavirus, so in addition to implementing social distancing, many retailers are restricting the number of people allowed in a store at a time.
Walmart and Target are keeping an eye on the number of customers coming, ensuring spacious aisles at all times, as are many other retailers.
More People Opting For Grocery Delivery
Supermarkets have mostly remained open throughout the pandemic, but many consumers prefer to stay home. The demand for grocery delivery is clear, as Instacart planned to hire 300,000 full-time shoppers in March. In April, the company announced it would be adding 250,000 more shoppers to meet consumer demand.
The trend will likely be here to stay; 51% of shoppers placed an online grocery order — the first one ever for 33% of this group — in the four weeks ending April 7, according to Acosta. Furthermore, 31% predict they will do more online grocery shopping post-pandemic than they did before it began.
More Support for Small Businesses
Many small businesses are struggling during the pandemic. A lack of foot traffic and competition with retail giants like Amazon make staying afloat in this environment a challenge.
Unfortunately, only 22% of shoppers are currently patronizing local retailers with online stores, according to Convey. This is likely due to the fact that 64% cite free shipping as an incentive to shop online.
The good news is 87% of those surveyed believe it’s important or very important to support local retailers. This could mean people will largely gravitate toward local retailers when they start shopping in physical store locations again.
Less Leisurely Browsing
Before the pandemic, retailers encouraged customers to casually browse aisles, as this often led to higher purchase volumes. However, current safety measures like limiting the number of guests in stores essentially urge people to buy what they need and leave.
This pattern could stick as people become used to making lists, finding those specific items and exiting as quickly as possible. No doubt, those who used to make frequent impulse purchases will see the cost savings associated with ditching the habit, which might make them think twice about returning to their old ways.
Mandatory Hand Sanitizer
Retailers might not be able to force customers to use hand sanitizer for entry into a store, but they can require it when touching certain items. For example, Macy’s will ask shoppers to use hand sanitizer before trying on jewelry and watches, in an effort to keep the virus off these items.
Increased Buy Online, Pick Up at Store Offerings
Since many customers are eager to minimize their time in physical stores, retailers have rushed to create or expand buy online, pick up at store and curbside pick-up options.
For example, Kroger debuted its first pickup only location on March 25, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Target and Staples are also offering curbside pickup.
This trend could be here to stay because, in addition to likely being a safer way to shop, it’s also a time-saving opportunity. Many consumers have now grown used to this feature, so they might want to keep using it in a post-pandemic world.
In order to remain competitive and best serve customers, retailers have traditionally offered a variety of in-store add-on services; however, these will likely disappear — at least for a while — as they require close contact between employees and shoppers.
For example, bra fittings, alteration services, ear-piercing services and all spa-like services are suspended until further notice at Macy’s stores. All paid and free in-store services, makeup and skin care applications and classes were also suspended at Sephora before the beauty retailer temporarily closed all U.S. and Canada locations in mid-March.
No Makeup Testers
They’ve long been a staple to help shoppers choose the right product, but beauty and makeup testers could be a thing of the past.
For example, at Macy’s, testers will only be available for customer viewing. Fragrance samples will also only be given on blotters at customers’ requests, instead of spraying directly on the skin.
In an effort to reduce the spread of germs, responsible retailers are working hard to keep stores as clean as possible. Therefore, many have decreased opening hours to reduce employees’ chance of exposure to the virus and allow time for deep cleaning of the store.
For example, The Kroger Co. has adjusted select store operating hours based on local conditions. This gives employees extra time to clean and stock stores in a safe and efficient manner. All Trader Joe’s locations also have reduced hours and are closing at 7 p.m.
Fitting Room Closures
Trying on clothing in a store fitting room is a major part of the shopping process for many customers, but this luxury might go by the wayside.
Though some stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom have reopened fitting rooms (with restrictions), stores like Ross, Kohl’s and T.J. Maxx continue to keep fitting rooms off limits.
No Food Sampling
A perk beloved by many, stores might stop offering food samples. While this practice is designed to boost sales of certain items, it presents health and safety risks stores might not be willing to take.
For example, Target has temporarily stopped offering food sampling. In mid-March, BJ’s also announced a temporary halt on food sampling in all clubs.
Special Hours for Seniors
They’ve been deemed one of the most vulnerable groups during the pandemic, so many stores have limited certain hours for senior citizens only. For example, effective May 4, U.S. Costco locations have made at least the first hour of operations exclusive to members ages 60 and older and people with disabilities.
If this approach is successful, retailers could make it a permanent move. This allows shoppers at a higher risk to feel more comfortable venturing out in public.
No Reusable Shopping Bags
Eco-conscious shoppers make a habit of bringing reusable shopping bags to stores, but the pandemic has put a halt to this practice in some areas.
For example, in Northern California, six Bay Area counties have temporarily banned reusable bags, due to health concerns caused by the pandemic. In other areas where reusable bags have not been banned, shoppers who bring them are being asked to bag their own groceries.
This could permanently hinder the use of reusable bags, if touching them is deemed a risk to employees. Since retailers cannot require customers to properly sanitize bags between uses, they could be considered unsafe.
More Touch-Free Payments
Customers and cashiers exchanging cash and credit cards is one of the many ways to transfer germs. Walmart is encouraging shoppers to download the retailer’s app and enjoy a contact-free checkout experience with Walmart Pay — a feature that allows customers to securely store their credit, debit or gift card in their phone.
Since services like Apple Pay and Google Pay make this possible at any retailer that accepts mobile payments, this could quickly become more prevalent. More than half (56%) of U.S. adults paid for goods or services with a smartphone in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center, so there’s clearly potential.
Stricter Return Policies
Generally speaking, customers are accustomed to returning unwanted and unused items to the retailer of origin for a refund. However, many companies have tightened their return policies for health and safety reasons.
For example, The Kroger Co. has temporarily suspended returns on food products, cosmetics and apparel. However, the grocer will replace or refund produce, meat, seafood and deli products that do not meet its freshness standards.
This could become a permanent trend, as retailers might be hesitant to put items back on the shelf that have left the premises with a customer.
Fewer Cash Payments
Consumers used cash in 26% of transactions in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice study. Despite its continued popularity, this form of payment could decrease in popularity, as it can facilitate the spread of germs.
For example, LaBonne’s market is currently asking customers to pay with credit or debit when at all possible. Plastic is considered a safer form of payment, as customers can typically run their cards themselves, without employees having to touch it.
No Self-Serve Stations
Many grocery stores have traditionally offered a variety of self-serve stations to customers, such as a salad bar. However, they have largely been deemed unsafe during the pandemic, causing stores to suspend these features.
For example, Whole Foods Market has closed all self-serve offerings, from its hot bars to olive bars.
This could be a new way of life, as these stations are largely unmonitored. Customers might feel uncomfortable eating from such an open, shared environment.
Limited Brand Selection
Many retailers are struggling to survive the loss of business during the pandemic. For example, the J.Crew Group announced its bankruptcy filing on May 4. Even more recently, in early August, Lord & Taylor filed for bankruptcy protection, as did Men’s Warehouse.
If the economy doesn’t pick up soon, it seems likely other retailers will follow suit. This could lead to fewer retailers, meaning less jobs and a smaller number of brands for consumers to choose from.
Shopping Won’t Be a Social Activity
For many, shopping has long been a social activity, but this could go by the wayside. If social distancing measures stay in place, it will be difficult for people to enjoy a leisurely shopping trip together.
Even if restrictions are eventually lifted, it could be too late, if consumers have already grown used to shopping alone.
Self-checkout lanes at large retailers are nothing new, but they could become even more prominent.
For example, Meijer is currently encouraging customers to pay with its shop and scan tool or self-checkout lanes when possible, to limit contact with others.
If automated checkout tools are deemed safer for everyone — and more cost-effective for retailers — more companies might invest in this feature.
No Major In-Store Promotions
In the pre-pandemic world, retailers worked hard to drive as much traffic to stores as possible. Fast-forward to the present and many are trying to keep crowds at bay.
For example, The Home Depot eliminated major spring promotions in an effort to avoid bringing high levels of traffic into its stores.
This will likely be the standard, as retailers work to limit the number of people in stores. Instead, major promotions might become online-only or simply a thing of the past.
Mostly a Business Transaction
More than just an errand, shopping is an experience for many people. They know the cashiers, they run into friends in stores and friendly associates make helpful product recommendations.
If shopping continues to be a socially distant activity, where customers are encouraged to quickly get what they need and leave, the personalized element of this activity will disappear. Shopping will become an isolated experience — akin to filling up the car with gas — with little human interaction.
Less Assistance From Associates
Responsible retailers are working hard to limit interactions between customers and employees, for everyone’s safety.
For example, Southern California grocer Gelson’s is currently asking customers not to put their phone near employees to show them pictures of items they want.
Customers will likely become more independent, as they either work to minimize contact with employees or assistance simply is not there. Companies might need to increase self-service options — like store maps available on retailer apps — so shoppers can effectively help themselves.
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Nicole Spector contributed to the reporting for this article.