It goes without saying that COVID-19 has caused a detrimental impact on all retail businesses worldwide. The daily routine of going out to shop, browsing along store aisles, and chatting up the checkout counter has been shelved.

For the clothing industry, this hit has been catastrophic.

As of March 24, 2020, over 47,000 well-known store names across the U.S. have had to temporarily close the doors of their brick-and-mortar storefronts. 

For as many as 15,000 stores, this move could become permanent.

Businesses are scrambling to reach their clientele while stores remain closed to the public. Companies are forced to adopt new shopping standards as a means to ensure public safety, but some shoppers may be hesitant to ever again venture out into public stores.

This chaos has never been seen before in our lifetime, and the ramifications happening now will create aftershocks that will be felt for decades to come.

A solution is desperately needed.

Enter in e-commerce and curbside.

These options came to the rescue and can be viewed as the industry’s saving grace while COVID-19 persists.

Even more, they may be seen as the new wave of the future.

How Did it Come to This?

Starting in mid-March, the United States was rocked by the spreading of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Governors and state officials began authorizing stay-at-home orders, causing thousands of store-front businesses to temporarily close their doors to the public.

Because of this, the retail industry took a massive hit.

Many Americans were mandated to work from home and the allure of a new wardrobe took a back seat. People just weren’t making apparel purchases during a global crisis. 

According to the New York Times, apparel stores saw a 50.5% loss in March sales compared to February, and retail overall dropped 8.7%, a devastating blow never before seen in its history.

Major and small businesses began laying off employees as doors were locked, leading to a massive loss in jobs rivaling the 2008 recession. 

The thrill of clothes shopping ground sales to a halt for brick-and-mortar stores, adding to an already substantial dent in retail sales.

An E-commerce Overload

A list of seven ways to reduce ecommerce store costs

With the opportunity of a physical shopping experience hindered, consumers stuck at home desired a way to still spend money and acquire goods. 

E-commerce purchases became the quick solution to the problem. 

Online ordering began climbing from mid-to-late March as pandemic stay-at-home regulations were put into place, skyrocketing to a 49% growth by April.

Warehouse giant Amazon, who regularly dominated the e-commerce competition, refocused their efforts and began prioritizing the shipments of essential goods, like medical supplies and household staples. 

This move resulted in the slow of non-essential goods that customers still desired from them.

Retailers saw an opening to meet their customers’ needs and took it upon themselves to fulfill online orders.

However, as a result of the exponential rise in online purchases, retailers soon began to struggle.

Shipping delays began increasing up to 1.5 days longer than normal, partly due to an increase in numbers but also due to a limited number of warehouse workers and distancing guidelines, making it difficult for employees to work while maintaining six feet among themselves. 

These delays were beginning to come at the cost of customer satisfaction as emails of order delays increased eight-fold.

John Landsman, a manager of research analytics stated, “[r]etailers badly want and need the business and appear willing to take orders and then apologize for not being able to deliver these orders within their normal service standards.”

Something had to change if this was going to work

The “Amazon Effect” completely redesigned the market when they began offering faster shipping and delivery to consumers. The luxury of placing an order while lounging in bed or on the couch and expecting that same order within 24-hours completely reconstructed customer expectations. 

Shoppers were now looking for other retailers to follow that same system. 

With demands for faster satisfaction, delays in shipping weren’t acceptable and retailers needed to meet these requests if they had any hope of retaining some of their pre-pandemic business.

A new source of omnichannel was necessary to meet these current escalations.

A Changing of the Roles

To combat growing concerns, retail businesses began following customer e-commerce demands and shifted their in-house operations as a way to endure. 

Big name titans were beginning to test the waters, hoping to find other means to keep business operating.

Smaller brands also started jumping on the bandwagon. Kendra Scott made the necessary switch by turning its brick-and-mortar storefronts into mini-distribution centers, funneling excess orders to be fulfilled locally.

This omnichannel switch granted retailers the capability to operate out of their physical storefronts and move inventory that was previously stalled in shelves.

Workers were brought back to storefronts and given the new task of order fulfillment.

However, allowing workers back came with several restrictions, like limiting the number of associates in a location at once, maintaining social distance, and wearing protective gear such as masks and gloves.  

To Re-Open or Curbside? That is the Question

As the weeks passed, states began preparing to lift stay-at-home orders. Needless to say, many people were concerned with how stores would now operate.

Stores wanting to sell products but continue with safety measures for workers and customers leaned into curbside options.

Store clerks who once spent their days behind the counter were re-branded as pickers, hunting store aisles and shelves for orders that customers had placed online to be picked-up at nearby locations, a type of clothing take-out. 

How It Works

A Zebra QLn420 mobile printer sits ready to print direct thermal labels

Outfitted with mobile printers, these pickers readily scan clothing items the customer has requested, label and package them for pick-up, and have purchases ready for same or next-day pick-up, depending on the time the order is placed.

Target is one example.

Workers scan orders while they shop using Zebra QLN mobile printers, placing labels on customer packages for easy identification.

Curbside has awarded customers a type of safety net, allowing them to still frequent their local stores and make purchases by safer and faster means.

Safety, Safety, Safety!

Options like curbside and online ordering have helped continue the flow of business for retailers, but many will be looking to open their doors once again for in-store shoppers.

With the possibility of small spikes in COVID-19 cases resurfacing as stores re-open, businesses will likely see a drop in physical retail.

Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, believes, “the fear [of physically shopping] can be as damaging to the economy as [COVID-19] itself.”

Therefore customers will be looking to retailers to keep them safe as they peruse aisles in a post-pandemic environment.

It is paramount for stores to build and instill a new level of trust among their clientele.

Strict guidelines and safety regulations will need to be in place before doors open to the public. 

Safety Guidelines 

  • Signs and audio announcements about safety regulations
  • Floor markings indicating safe distance points where customers must stand
  • Masks and gloves for employees
  • Face shields at register/check-out counters
  • Monitoring and limiting the number of shoppers allowed in a store
  • Sanitized fitting rooms
  • Increased cleaning protocols
  • “No-touch” interactions between consultants and customers
  • Reduced store hours

What does all of this mean for the future of retail?

A New World of Retail

The aftermath of COVID-19 has forever changed the functionality of the retail industry, and the hope of life returning to normal may unfortunately be an unrealistic notion. 

Temporary store closings will likely lead to permanent closures for thousands of businesses, with the loss in sales leaving many unable to pay rent.

Brick-and-mortar storefronts could become relics of the past. 

The pandemic will likely alter shopping and buying habits in the physical sense, with customers abandoning the traditional shopping experience for more convenient and safer methods.

Even with stores opening back up to the public, previous in-store shoppers might completely transition to online ordering altogether.

In the wake of a contact-free world, the future is curbside and e-commerce.

This may have been the fate of the retail industry in years to come, but the recent pandemic has made it a more jarring reality.

Retail businesses will need to be resilient and continue to find new ways to reform if they have any aspirations of remaining relevant in the future market.