May 15, 2020 / Industry

The Retail Sector’s post Covid response relies on emotional intelligence

Analysis of Covid-19 has been widespread. We just have to turn to the headlines to see how the pandemic has impacted all walks of life, from economic impact to education and the future of work, consumer behaviour and the retail sector. 

Yet, if we scope Covid-19 with a psychological lens, we can see that the emotional impact has been vast and complex. About a month ago, a trending article circulated LinkedIn stating how people could expect to experience the motions of grief in response to the crisis.  At some stage, most of us found ourselves amongst the waves of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief surrounding the loss of lives, mourning a loss of freedom, perhaps goals put on pause, or sadness surrounding lost jobs.

Yet, if we seek out the positives, people have experienced the joy of an unexpected surprise in the post from a love one, the pleasure of connecting with friends and family over zoom or endorphins rushing through our body due to a fitness class on Instagram live. We have been touched and in awe of the kindness and generosity of strangers in our communities. Captain Tom Moore illustrates the very essence of this unprecedented kindness in his efforts to raise money for the NHS and is a true illustration of the power of altruism.  

Covid-19 has been an emotional rollercoaster. Every emotion on the spectrum has been felt. And every one of these emotions is valid.  If we turn back time to 2018, conferences in the retail sector were documenting how empathy and experiences were the fuel for driving the future of our industry. However, this not new and has always been the case. The exchange between people and brands has always been emotional. 

A classic example is L’Oreal’s tagline “Because I’m Worth It”, which was created by copywriter Ilon Specht in 1971. She coined the phrase in a state of anger after belittlement by male superiors and the phrase reflected the women’s rights movement of the time. The creation of the brand’s tagline was emotional. It was powerful because our lives are made up of a fabric of emotions. 

After intense periods of hardship and trauma, people seek escapism. If we look to post World War I, jazz offered an upbeat antidote to difficult times. People found joy and happiness in music, the ability to dance and express themselves after prolonged periods of fear, anxiety and suffering. Visual representations of jazz are bright, bold and expressive colours, illustrating joy and hope.

Equally, Dior pioneered the golden era of couture that started in 1947, not too long after world war two. The fashion designer wanted to dress women in opulence, excess and glamour, after periods of sacrifice and rationing. Fashion was reminding the world of joie de vivre. Life is precious and short and needs to be celebrated. Both intense periods of human suffering were followed by the demand for opportunities to escape and enjoy life. 

Headlines have likened Covid-19 to war. “We are at war,” was repeatedly stated by French president Macron in a televised speech at the end of March. Millions around the world have sacrificed to serve the greater good of others. They have stayed indoors and not seen loved ones, to protect health systems and fight a health pandemic. So what lessons can we find here as we seek to set sail into an uncertain sea of life post-COVID? Once lockdowns are restricted and stores start to slowly reopen, people will be searching for opportunities to celebrate life. They will be seeking to enjoy newly refound freedoms. 

 If we want to imagine the future of the retail sector after Covid-19, then we need to understand the emotional context that consumers have endured and how they have found ways to enrich their lives for the better. This sentiment is echoed by Mark Carney, who published in The Economist that the economy must now yield to human values more than ever. He explains that before Covid-19, we lived in a society that prioritises economic growth, but now, the virus is reversing that trend. We must focus our efforts on human growth. The retail sector’s response to store reopening must be intrinsically emotional and human-centric. 

We explore how escapism and reassurance will be key to when the time comes to reopen stores. 

1. Retail to offer escapism

In a recent LinkedIn Post, one professional stated ‘I am tired of brands telling me they understand my pain, I want them to sell me a dream and give me a reason to escape’.  Furthermore, in a podcast exchange between Elizabeth Day and Alain De Botton, the concept of ‘monitoring news intake’ was discussed. There is only so much negative news a person can take, without feeling the overwhelm, inability to cope or despair. In efforts to counter out the bad, consumers will be seeking spaces that offer hope, joy and opportunities to forget. 

Earlier this week, Dezeen reported that decadent escapist interiors in restaurants like The Ivy Asia in London could become one of the biggest post-pandemic trends. Though restaurants are not just searching for greater spacing, they are seeking to push for more originality in design, and the retail sector is no different.

However, another way we expect escapism to proliferate within the retail sector is within gaming. Just weeks before lockdown hit Europe, US gaming company Razer debuted its first European flagship. Primed for connecting with Generation Z, the retail experience blended media with a shop floor consisting of a testing lab and competition gaming zone. Each week was expected to host a weekly tournament and boot camps. The physical space in London is an escapist playground, defined by the visual codes of interactive lighting and black and greyscale walls contrasted with chroma-change lighting that represented the Razer hardware. Originally expected to launch in mid-2020, but subject to COVID-19 lockdowns, Farm + Feed is an LA-based next-gen arcade concept that will combine retail with game-specific competition nights and chef-catered parties. 

The opportunity for this kind of play and otherworldly escapism through gaming culture in stores lends itself to the opportunity for a bookable experiential brand time through ‘IRL zoning’ and in-store festival hangouts. Bookable experiential brand time gives stores the opportunity to monitor consumer traffic. 

2. Retail to offer reassurance

But where one emotion is felt, counter emotions are also felt. Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are all contributing factors that harm people’s mental health and wellbeing worldwide. As well as seeking escapism and play in life post lockdown, consumers will be seeking security and comfort, amongst a climate of hyper instability.  

Two weekends back, the Financial Times published a weekend piece surrounding sheet cred, arguing that our beds are our sanctuary and good bedding is the greatest comfort of them all. Globally, we have been comfort-cooking. On March 1st, Google Trends noted that banana bread was the most searched recipe. Sourcing journal noted that loungewear trends went mainstream as the clothing category became consumer’s new normal. The pyjama category has accelerated, with InStyle reporting that TikTok has revived consumer interest in fancy nightgown trends. We are seeking comfort to aid our uncertainty. So how does this translate into a store experience once they are safe to reopen?

What’s more, in efforts to prioritise mental and emotional wellbeing, sleep has been gaining greater attention and is a newfound luxury for millennials who seek respite from burnout culture. Brand concepts catering to this demand include Equinox’s sleep coach program and Nightfood launched a line of ice creams that work in tandem with the human sleep cycle. 

Brands are already offering self-care solutions and providing opportunities for consumers to build healthier habits. Yet we expect this trend to drive experiences in the retail sector when it is safe to shop again.

Retail experiences are fundamentally emotional. Whilst we will be designing consumer journeys that prioritise safety and hygiene, we will also need to pay attention to the emotive elements involved when creating an experience, and how this translates into brand communication and meaning.