30 April 2020

The impact of coronavirus on people’s everyday life is tangible. The habits have been dismantled and a true change in consumers’ behaviour has occurred. The pandemic has transformed our buying behaviour. Customers have developed new expectations and to flourish, retail must be able to meet them.

The retail sector has been extensively impacted by the pandemic and those retailers selling non-essential goods have been even more influenced (Coker, 2020). At the moment, the future of retail is uncertain, and the main question is: How will retailers need to adapt to new shopping behaviours?

It is already believed that people will eventually return to some sort of routine although with some adjustments to continue protecting their health. This health consciousness has already led to increased online shopping and is predicted to continue to grow (Cheraso, 2020). Therefore, all brands will do better with strong e-commerce operations, making this not only a good but actually a necessary investment now (Shoulberg, 2020).

On the other hand, it has been argued that even with a new consciousness, consumers might be more willing to shop in-store due to a prolonged use of mobile devices or due to the cabin fever (Nazir, 2020). An example of this is provided by the current Chinese consumers. In fact, after months of quarantine, Chinese consumers are already starting to shop in-store even though serious regulations are still applied. For instance, big brands like IKEA and Apple Inc. have reopened their stores but they have also applied restrictions on crowds such as the number of people allowed per elevator (Zhou & Goh, 2020).

As a response to the new customers’ consciousness as well as to comply with new safety regulations, physical locations will have to undergo profound changes in order to stay afloat but, more importantly, to provide a positive shopping experience to their customers.  Cleanliness will be a major consideration (Cheraso, 2020). In a society where bacteria and viruses have terrorised the population, future consumers will more likely to avoid all those physical locations that do not provide the required standard of cleanliness.

In addition to such requirement, future stores will have to consider the new consumers’ attitudes and fears in regard to large spaces. In fact, it is believed that bigger physical stores will likely be avoided. As a consequence to this, smaller boutiques and brands will begin to proliferate while large-format, high-end department stores will lose their charm (Ritz, 2020). Therefore, existing stores and above all, larger ones, will have to adjust their locations in order to fulfil consumers’ desires which arose during the pandemic.

The need for space and physical movement have already been considered within the retail sector by looking at the notion of crowding. Crowding occurs when the number of people, objects or both, in a limited space, negatively affect the individual and his activities (Machleit et al., 2000). For instance, in the retail context, the consumer can be negatively affected by the excessive amount of merchandise or by an exaggerated number of individuals within the store. It is necessary to consider the notion of crowding as the perception of a crowded environment can elicit negative feelings in the customers. To consumers, a crowded environment becomes unpredictable and leaves them with no control over the situation (Whiting, 2015).

The sense of control is a fundamental cognitive need in human beings and a lack of such sense can be harmful and lead to distress and ill health (Evans & Lepore, 1992). In the current time, due to the impact of the pandemic over everybody’s routine, human beings find themselves with a lack of control over their lives. It can be argued that such feeling will endure even when people will be able to come back to some sort of normality. Therefore, to be successful in the future, retailers must be able to tackle such lack. Retailers must give control to the consumers both to avoid the perception of crowding and more generally to elicit the hedonic satisfaction from the shopping experience.

Research has already investigated the way in which the design of a physical store can enhance a sense of control over the environment. Regarding the retail sector, it has been shown that many department stores employ a free-flow layout for which fixtures and aisles are arranged asymmetrically. This type of layout encourages customers to browse but can easily confuse them, leading to feelings of uncontrollability over the environment (Lee et al., 2011). Due to such reason, department stores could utilise a grid layout for which the merchandise is arranged in a horizontal and vertical way, allowing consumers to locate and reach the objects easily (Lee et al., 2011). A further element that could allow consumers to have a major control over the environment would be the presence of greater ceiling height. In fact, previous studies have shown that ceiling height do affect the spacial crowding, meaning the degree to which the environment design feels crowded (Lee et al., 2011). It’s not necessarily easy to move the ceiling, we know, however there are many ways to create optical illusion of higher ceilings. One of the recent trends in retail design is to paint ceilings in dark colours, which is actually creating a perception of a much smaller space. If combined with large amounts of fixtures and merchandise, it can lead to sense of crowding and result in negative emotions and shorter dwell time. On the other hand, dark ceilings can create higher intimacy, which might be a good solution for larger retail stores, e.g. department stores, when combined with further intimacy-inducing measures.

As also suggested by Daniel Binder, who managed the Asia-based supply chains during the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, retailers will have to acknowledge how to enhance a sense of structure and calm among the consumers (Howland, 2020). All the previously discussed aspects of cleanliness, sense of control and crowding are just some psychologically crucial areas to consider when adapting retail stores to the new consumer mindset. Many other aspects will need to be considered, many of them only present on subconscious level of consumers brains, and therefore not as easy to control.

This is where the concept of atmospherics becomes helpful, defined as “the conscious designing of space to create certain effects in buyers” (Kotler, 1974, p.50). It might sound simple and something that all retailers seem to do. To a certain extend yes, but the biggest impact of atmospherics is actually on consumer subconscious brain through perception of various sensory elements of the retail environment. Each one tiny stimulus out of 11mln of tiny sensory triggers brain processes every second impacts on consumer emotions, behaviours and decisions in varied ways. The key to success is the understanding of the complex matrix of creating a winning multi-sensory retail environment, something we have been doing for years with brands like Swarovski, House of Fraser and Dowsing & Reynolds.

Future retailers will necessarily need to change their physical stores and employ specific tactics to ensure people’s wellbeing. Consumers will be more conscious regarding their health and such consciousness will drive their shopping behaviours, on top of all the other drivers previously present and introduced through the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. Moreover, consumers will need to acquire a sense of control over themselves lost during this period of confinement. Therefore, with the good understanding of the science behind consumer behaviour and atmospherics, the design of the retail stores can be considerably improved in terms of its effectiveness, especially with all the new customers’ demands arising from the pandemic.

Contact us to discuss how you can not only prepare your stores with safety in mind but also enhance your customer experience to positively impact shopping satisfaction, customer loyalty and sales, amongst others.



Cheraso, D. (2020). Consumer behaviour will change forever post COVID-19; will your business be ready?: https://news4sanantonio.com/features/digital-discoveries/consumer-behavior-will-change-forever-post-covid-19-will-your-business-be-ready

Coker, J. (2020). COVID-19: Could the coronavirus change consumer behaviour forever? https://www.essentialretail.com/features/covid19-coronavirus-change/

Evans, G.W., & Lepore, S.J. (1992). Conceptual and analytic issues in crowding research. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 12, 163-173.

Howland, D. (2020). The consumer after COVID-19: https://www.retaildive.com/news/the-consumer-after-covid-19/575634/

Kotler, P. (1974). Atmospherics as a marketing tool. Journal of Retailing, 49(4), 48-64.

Lee, S.Y.; Kim, J., & Li, J. (2011). Impacts of store crowding on shopping behaviour and store image. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 133-140.

Machleit, K.A., Eroglu, S.A., & Mantel, S.P. (2000). Perceived retail crowding and shopping satisfaction: what modifies this relationship? Journal of Consumer Psychology, 9(1), 29-42.

Nazir, S. (2020). Coronavirus: when will retail return to normal?:  https://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2020/04/coronavirus-when-will-retail-return-back-to-normal/

Ritz, N. (2020). The eight ways retail will shift after COVID-19: https://www.smartcompany.com.au/coronavirus/the-eight-ways-retail-will-shift-after-covid-19/

Shouldberg, W. (2020). 10 ways retail will never be the same after COVID-19: https://businessofhome.com/articles/10-ways-retail-will-never-be-the-same-after-covid-19

Whiting, A. (2015). Long Lines of Customers: How Does Customer Crowding Affect Service Employees?:http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=b56ddab0-602e-439b-b671-7a36f6bf4ba5%40sdc-v-sessmgr01

Zhou, W. & Goh, B. (2020). Chinese Citizens are Returning to Shops as the COVID-19 Outbreak Eases: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/chinas-coronavirus-outbreak-shops/