As the world is entering the phase of recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, industries start looking for the ways to ensure safety of their consumers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the retail sector, where safety inevitably clashes with customer experience – at least at first glance. Shopping malls now need to come up with solutions that will win the trust of their audience without ruining the joy of shopping and socializing.

The Changing Landscape of Retail

The global effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 had a tremendous adverse impact on the economy. In some cases, it also exposed long-standing issues in the way the affected organizations operate. In fact, some of the most efficient responses to the pandemic were an extension of long-awaited changes and improvements. The switch to digital-first services is perhaps the brightest example, although certainly not the only one.

The retail industry is not an exception. While the lockdown certainly dealt a massive blow to sales, the sector was already under heavy pressure from e-commerce services prior to 2020. According to a report by Deloitte, the 42% drop in foot traffic of Canada’s top malls was just a continuation of the 22% reduction a year before. This effect can also be observed in consumer surveys: 58% of respondents believe that enclosed-mall shopping will decline in popularity, and while 24% say they shopped in malls before the pandemic, only half of them are planning on doing it after the crisis subsides. Simply put, times are changing for malls – COVID has just sped things up.

Shopping Malls: Post-Pandemic World Challenges

When it comes to resuming operations after the lockdown, the first thing that comes to mind is protective measures for mall sanitizing and disinfecting. In reality, the challenges for the retail sector are both broader and more complex. Here is an overview of the main points:

  1. Integrating safety with business operations: Cleaning the premises may be trivial; doing so without bothering the customers requires some effort.
  2. Winning the trust: Disinfection alone will not convince visitors that your mall is safe – you need to demonstrate its effectiveness.
  3. Complying with regulations: The precautions taken need to align with regulatory requirements.
  4. Establishing communication: With all the changes in place, one would want to hear what their clients actually think about the new experience.
  5. Living up to customer expectations: Even with the most advanced disinfectant fogger machine, malls need to maintain service excellence to compete with e-commerce vendors.

As can be seen, sanitation is just a part of the bigger set of challenges, so business owners need to develop an encompassing strategy that would tick most of these boxes to create a lasting effect.

How to Create a Safe Environment

When it comes to public health and safety, the go-to destination for recommendations and guidelines are national healthcare agencies. So far, the consensus regarding safe operations in the retail sector has crystallized into three main principles:

  • Cleaning and disinfection
  • Promotion of hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
  • Health screenings for employees and visitors

As long as these requirements are fulfilled, it is possible for shopping centers to continue working. What is important to understand is that “continue working” does not imply smooth uninterrupted operation. In fact, some of the changes may well get in the way of customers and actually discourage them from returning to the mall the next time. So, malls need to evolve to create a safe environment without alienating the audience.

Smart Cleaning and Disinfection

Cleaning may seem like the least troublesome part of adapting to the post-pandemic world. After all, malls already have cleaning procedures in place, so it is only necessary to intensify them. To an extent, this is true – for instance, high-touched surfaces like handrails and door handles can be cleaned in a conventional way. All it takes is choosing a disinfectant that is efficient and safe for public spaces, and many of these have already been approved by EPA.

However, this approach will not work for surfaces sensitive to moisture or with complex texture, which cannot be wiped easily. There are also situations when the entire room needs to be cleaned, preferably without closing it off for the entire day. One possible solution is dry fogging – applying the disinfectant by atomizing the liquid into tiny particles. This method does not leave any moisture on surfaces and ensures thorough coverage. The process is also quite seamless and resource-efficient; it has been successfully used for decontamination in food production and healthcare.

Of course, cleaning the mall with the handheld fogger for cleanroom sterilization may not be the optimal decision in terms of customer experience. Fortunately, the market now offers a selection of options designed with consumer-grade public spaces in mind. For example, sanitation passages that are installed at mall entrances employ dry fogging to disinfect all inbound visitors, ensuring the absence of pathogens inside and disinfection tunnel effectiveness. The entire process takes less than 10 seconds per person even for places with high audience traffic intensity. Moreover, their operation is automated and sensor-driven, which makes it convenient for both customers and mall employees.

Safe Behavior Promotion

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of overcoming the pandemic is the ongoing attempt to help people adopt the new norms and rules. Even a year into the pandemic, wearing a mask may still feel awkward, not to mention that sometimes people can simply forget about putting one on. So the shopping mall management will need to come up with ways to remind about it in a manner that would be effective and non-intrusive.

A clever way to achieve this is through behavioral nudging – creating subtle messages that direct one’s behavior in the desired direction. This can be anything from changing the tone of messages to sound more relatable to appealing to existing social norms. The key is removing the enforcement factor from the equation, so that a person doesn’t feel pressure – something that does not go well with customer experience.

Some organizations have already taken this concept to the next level with smart technology. For instance, a medical center in Sheba has used face recognition technology to detect people without masks and display the feedback in the form of light-hearted messages. The developers of these solutions believe that it will create “just enough” social pressure to play by the rules. This approach has already been picked up by disinfection tunnel manufacturers, with some of the products utilizing facial recognition technology in a similar manner. The technology is still in its infancy, yet with enough creativity, it can give a boost to shopping experience while also helping people to adjust to the new norms.

Health Screening

Of course, cleaning, disinfection, and even mask wearing do not guarantee protection as long as visitors with symptoms can access the mall premises. Screening everyone at the entrance is the obvious solution although it has one major downside – it slows down the customer flow to a crawl. Fortunately, there are already solutions on the market that take care of this issue through automation.

Contactless temperature measurement is the most familiar example. A simple system consisting of a pass-through gate with an infrared thermometer and a movement sensor can screen the inbound traffic seamlessly. Taking it one step further, it can be combined with the mask detection algorithm described above. Some solutions integrate both of these components into the system, creating an all-purpose disinfection station with multiple layers of protection.

Interestingly, the advantages of the given approach extend beyond real-time protection. Some devices can log the results of the screening into a database, which will help to monitor the trends and inform managerial decisions. In other words, malls will not only ensure the safety of their customer base but may help overcome COVID-19 with data by partnering with healthcare authorities.

Redefining the Experience

With all the safety measures in place, it is still important to keep the customer perspective in mind. As was mentioned before, complex problems demand encompassing solutions, so safety considerations should also be incorporated into the shopping experience. For example, the zero-touch approach can be extended to stores by featuring QR codes and encouraging people to use their phones to get information about goods. Not only does it reduce the health risks, but it also creates an opportunity for enhancing customer experience through things like augmented reality.

This approach can actually work in both directions. For instance, retailers can track user wishlists to feature the most popular items in brick-and-mortar stores. Not only will it help meet customer expectations, it will also allow clients to spend less time indoors thereby reducing the hygiene anxiety. Small nudges will also work here – for example, a cleverly presented delivery service may encourage social distancing without eroding the sales. To sum up, in order to produce lasting and sustainable results, safety has to become one of the main aspects of a long-term strategy.

Final Thoughts

COVID-19 has been without a doubt the most dramatic crisis of recent times. However, as its effects subside, and we learn to cope with the limitations of the new normal, we will see more inventive solutions to this challenge. Some of these are already showing potential to create value beyond their initial purpose and may even outlive the current health crisis, becoming a part of the ever-changing social landscape.