5 Ways to Improve Retail Queue Management in a Socially Distanced World
A friend sent me this video of a queue outside a local DIY store the morning that the lockdown was lifted here in Dublin. It depicts a scene that is probably being repeated all over the world. Despite all the talk of the dreaded retail apocalypse, loads of people still like to shop in physical stores, so there is a massive amount of pent up demand out there. This queue is extreme and I can’t imagine it being the norm for long but smaller queues are likely to become a familiar sight until COVID-19 has been properly dealt with.
Most retailers were seeing footfall decline steadily before the pandemic hit primarily because sales to their own online store and competitors like Amazon were growing. The three key advantages physical retail retained over direct to consumer (DTC) competitors that were staving off the demise of the store were:
The convenience of being able to go get the product in a nearby store and be back home using it or wearing it an hour later.
The ability to touch and feel products and/or ask in-store product experts for assistance helps ensure the consumer purchases the right product.
For many consumers, the experience of shopping is enjoyable and is considered a pleasant pass time as much as a necessity.
Large queues outside your stores negate the first and third of these advantages while the second one only happens if the consumer enters the store. This will make it easier for those customers who’ve had to try online shopping during the lockdown, to abandon physical stores almost completely.
There’s also the health and safety aspect to consider. Long queues have led to arguments erupting in some instances and this is the last thing your brand needs to be associated with right now. You also have to take the weather into account. Before you know it winter will arrive and people’s willingness to stand in line will greatly diminish. Minimising the size and time spent in those queues should, therefore, be a key focus for all retailers.
So What Can You Do to Manage Queues Caused by Social Distancing Measures?
1. Human Management
Most businesses are managing the flow of customers at the door and enforcing social distancing by stationing staff at the door. This is understandable under the circumstances and, in many ways, it is hard to avoid some human involvement in queue management with setting up a turnstile or something. But there are ways you can make it as pleasant an experience as possible.
This is a job for a friendly but assertive staff member. Using a gruff security guard can result in customers feeling intimated. On the other hand, asking someone who is shy and retiring to do it makes it much more likely chaos will erupt if someone tries to skip the queue. I would recommend using a relatively experienced store associate even though it may seem like a menial task (at least until you get a strong process in place).
If you have a large store with different sections (e.g. electronics shops and department stores), determining which section each customer is looking to access might help you improve flow (this can easily be done by messaging – see below). This way you are utilising the entirety of the store.
If really long queues are forming, consider offering customers free tea and coffee or whatever refreshment is most appropriate in your context. Small touches like that can have a big impact on peoples’ mood and attitude in what can be a stressful situation.
Consider asking vulnerable customers to come to the top of the queue or, better again, create a separate queue dedicated to seniors, pregnant women and other vulnerable members of society.
2. Appointment Booking
If you’re the sort of business where a prolonged interaction with a store associate is the norm (e.g. mobile-network owned stores) then taking bookings online is probably a smart move. It might also be useful if social distancing measures limit the number of customers that can be in your store at any one time to 1 or 2 people.
Getting the word out to people that this is how you now operate will be challenging but crucial to avoid upsetting a lot of customers showing up at your door only to be disappointed. You really need to push this hard on social media to avoid having to say no to people’s faces when they’re standing at your door. Also, be sure to make it easy to book at the front door (promote a QR code, URL or phone number etc) so walk-ins can pick up any remaining slots.
Taking bookings like this carries a risk that customers don’t show up and your footfall is impacted even further. To avoid that, make sure the system you’re using facilitates a reminder being sent to customers on the morning of the appointment.
Most of these platforms use SMS to send customer notifications, so be aware that there is an additional cost involved in handling each individual customer (though a bundle of SMS may be included in the plan pricing). This might make it unsuitable in a high volume low margin business.
3. Queue Management System / Virtual Queuing Software
Booking appointments won’t suit most retailers who rely on browsing and drop-ins for the bulk of their business. If that is the case in your retail business, then implementing a queue management system might make more sense. Casual dining restaurants have been using these tools to manage drop-in diners for many years. Basically, your customers would show up at the store door and be advised to scan a QR code to join the “queue” by adding your phone/email and name in a form. Then, a few minutes before the customer’s slot becomes available, an SMS is sent to their phone to call them back to the store.
This queue management solution would work particularly well in settings where consumers can easily entertain themselves in close proximity while waiting for the SMS. The obvious example is a shopping centre or mall.
Some applications, including the ones listed below, cater for both appointment booking and virtual queuing management, which gives your customers the option to book ahead or join the queue on spec when they arrive. This will help reduce the number of disappointed shoppers arriving at your door.
The SMS issue mentioned above applies.
Don’t try to do anything fancy. Most of these solutions are plug and play out of the box. Trying to integrate them into existing applications is only going to increase the cost and delay the go-live date.
4. Improved Digital Customer Engagement at Store-Level
Many people show up at a store looking to find a particular item or ask the staff a specific question rather than browse. With supply chains in disarray, the product they’re looking for may be out of stock and expecting someone to stand in a queue just to ask a question is not a great customer experience. For the first time in the history of retail, the smart thing to do might be to turn people away from your stores. If you can only serve a limited number of people in your store at any one time, you really need to focus on the ones who are going to make a purchase.
For these reasons and others, digitally connecting consumers to stores has suddenly become a key engagement channel. Messaging is a great way to do that because it facilitates everything from a real-time click-and-collect solution to a product enquiry. It also provides much more flexibility in terms of response times than voice calls, which need to be answered instantly, while staying on top of requests is easier because everything is in writing.
The best thing about this solution is that it will remain useful and relevant even if a COVID-19 vaccination solves the whole social distancing problem really quickly.
Make sure you select a provider who can aggregate all the different messaging channels into one application to avoid overcomplicating things for busy store staff.
Keeping one channel (I would recommend WhatsApp or Messenger) for customers in the queue will give you clarity as to who is outside the store and who is contacting you from a distance (Google’s Business Messages and webchat are best for this). That way when the weather does turn you can ask people to sit in their cars until you message them to call them to the front door.
Of course, the most obvious and best way to reduce the size of queues at your stores is to facilitate online ordering and delivery but you don’t need me to tell you that.
Start Managing the Queues Outside Your Stores Today
COVID-19 has been described as the greatest driver of retail innovation of all time. Never has so much changed in such a short time. However, the store remains a key channel. For now.
For many retailers, the next 12-months is likely to be about surviving so that you can thrive again when COVID-19 is a distant memory. As you’ll already know from complaints about queues at the cash register, people do not appreciate waiting in line to hand over their hard-earned cash. Queues caused by social distancing are encouraging customers to continue shopping online and build on the habit they were forced to adopt during the lockdown. Addressing this problem should be mission-critical for all brick and mortar retailers.
This is a situation where speed is of utmost importance. Consumers will tolerate queues while all the hype around protecting frontline workers in the health service persists. But when that dissipates, consumers attitudes will harden and retailers who don’t have their ships in order will suffer.