Face Masks, Appointments And Quarantined Shoes: Welcome To Shopping’s New Normal

Kenya Hunt gets a preview of what the future of fashion retail might look like.

Luxury Shoppers

by Kenya Hunt |

Imagine high summer. Sweltering. And finally hot enough for a long enough stretch of time to move the light jumpers, hoodies and track pants you’ve had in high rotation to the back of the closet.

You want something new to wear. A little retail therapy to brighten the mood. A gauzy dress for the heatwave. Sandals to add the smallest jolt of newness to your day. So you go online and book an appointment to shop in your favourite store.

Upon arrival, a well-dressed security guard – suited, face masked – politely offers you a pump of hand gel before escorting you to a check-in where a personal shopping associate is waiting to greet you, all smiling eyes blinking over a fashionably graphic face covering. She walks you through a selection of breezy, diaphanous dresses and block-coloured swimsuits – summer clothes that are actually on sale in summer. And as you make your selection of pieces to try, she calls over a colleague who steam-cleans each garment as you watch, before ushering you into a fitting room (deep-cleaned for the occasion). After you choose your picks, you’re invited to browse a collection of shoes, bags and decorative, reusable face masks. You try on a pair of sandals, but don’t quite like the fit. The shoes are taken away where they’ll be quarantined for 24 hours before being reintroduced to the sales floor. Each bag you touch will be discreetly taken away and cleaned. And all of this happens without you touching a single soul of course. Because, social distancing. Welcome to retail’s new normal.

With non-essential stores set to reopen in England from the 15 June, one of fashion’s most pressing questions is: will women want to shop? And what will that experience look like when they do?

Like our opinions on most things in the age of Covid-19, public views on shopping have taken a journey from being what The New York Times called a ‘moral question’ back in March, as the pandemic inched towards its peak, to weeks later being described in social media campaigns as a way to save businesses and jobs (fashion retailers reported a 23% year-on-year decline in sales in April and total British retail sales dropped a record 5% in March) to where we are now, a moment in which we’re once again seeing clothes as a source of escapism and light relief from a dystopian reality.

Queueing outside a reopened Zara in Paris
Queueing outside a reopened Zara in Paris ©Getty Images

‘It’s something that can bring joy and lift the spirit,’ says Natalie Kingham, fashion buying director at MatchesFashion. After a lockdown period in which spending shifted entirely to the brand’s ecommerce site, where shoppers were primarily looking for loungewear and sleepwear, she’s seeing an increased appetite for what she describes as ‘hopeful purchases. Items that can be worn now and when things return to normal, from dresses and sandals to beachwear.’

What will ‘normal’ look like, though? At Chanel, where footfall, according to the brand, is ‘gradually resuming’ in reopened markets in France and Italy, the stores have adopted an extensive list of sanitary protocols to ‘preserve the health of its customers and its teams’, a statement provided by the company outlines. ‘As its stores reopen around the world, strict sanitary measures have been put in place to meet this priority.’ They include regular cleaning and disinfection of the sales area, as well as watches, jewellery and eyewear between each fitting. (Studies reveal Covid-19 can live up to nine days on metal, glass and plastic.) Leather goods and shoes, meanwhile, are sanitised and set aside for 24 hours after being tried on. And protective barriers have been erected in payment areas, which are also regularly cleaned.

Not surprisingly, technology and personalisation, two topics that had been trending for years, will become even more crucial to the experience of shopping as a whole. Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani are offering an appointment booking service, which other retailers are also rolling out, as a way to provide a more appealing, personalised shopping experience – and, crucially, crowd control.

In China, Pinko is making important sales via digital chats, while its CEO, Pietro Negra, says they’re thinking about how buying will evolve over the coming months and years. ‘I would love to create three-dimensional glasses where the customer experiences the store,’ he told Grazia.

Browns Fashion will be promoting a bespoke shopping experience when it opens its stores this month. ‘The personalised experience will become increasingly more important as we look to address why we visit stores, rather than just buying online,’ says Ida Petersson, womenswear and menswear buying director. She adds, ‘Our in-store app will empower our retail teams to prepare a customer’s appointment including the ability to discuss products via the app and pre-select pieces.’

For the bigger, mass-market brands, crowd-control apps that allow you to book an appointment, Apple Genius Bar-style, or see in real time how crowded a shop is will be the way forward, according to Paul Martin, head of retail at KPMG.

Digital Store Chanel
Inside Chanel ©Chanel

For many brands, particularly the high street, which had already been struggling with rising closures pre-Covid-19, the ability to adapt quickly and create a shopping experience that feels enjoyable and immersive, while safe, could make or break their business. ‘We’ll be confronted with social distancing well into 2021. Long queues in front of stores will be the norm and retailers will want to replace that with the right technology,’ Martin adds.

Petersson says the pandemic presents the retail industry with an opportunity to energise the shopping experience. ‘Bricks and mortar needed a pick-me-up and this situation has forced people to rethink and act sooner, which can only be a good thing.’

What’s being sold is also changing. Both Browns and MatchesFashion will be selling face masks, as demand for face coverings skyrocket. On the high street, Mango will be selling perfumed sanitising gels and has launched a line of face masks online.

It seems women are itching to shop again, albeit more mindfully, as concerns about the economy take hold. Just look at the viral footage of long queues outside Zara stores here in the UK, as well as in France and the Netherlands on the day the megabrand reopened. Or Asia, where one Hermès store in Guangzhou brought in $2.7m in a single day. No matter the price point – pandemic or not – shopping still has the power to thrill.


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