NRF 2021: Retailers make an appointment with the future

Photo: RetailWire
Jan 15, 2021
Matthew Stern

Challenges created by the novel coronavirus pandemic are compelling retailers to make changes that promise to fundamentally reshape how they conduct business in the future. Examples of that reality were featured on a streamed session of the NRF 2021 show this week.

Fokke de Dejong, CEO of Suitsupply, and Krista Bourne, SVP of sales and operations at Verizon, discussed how innovating out of necessity helped their companies navigate through a difficult time and pointed them towards success in a post-pandemic world.

For Suitsupply, a global apparel company, the onset of the pandemic meant a complete change in customer habits as events were canceled, formal dining closed down and formalwear no longer in demand. Because of the company’s presence in Asia, in countries where the pandemic was largely controlled early, Mr. de Jong was able to get an early glimpse of what a post-lockdown world would look like and thus had a view towards an eventual rebound.

During the lockdown, Suitsupply added new floors and a rooftop to its SoHo location. The new inside space was reserved for pre-booked appointments with stylists. The rooftop provided a place for customers to hang out while they waited for alterations.

Both Suitsupply and Verizon were surprised to find how willing customers were to pre-book shopping appointments.

“At Verizon this year, we’ve already handled 1.4 million customer appointments, which was not something that was in our strategic plan initially,” said Ms. Bourne.

The pandemic also moved Verizon’s retail operations in other unanticipated directions.

“I think [Verizon’s pandemic experience] validated a lot of things, but it also exposed some areas that we could add to the roadmap and some things we needed to accelerate,” said Ms. Bourne.

At Verizon, nine out of ten transactions conducted by the company’s corporate fleet are now contact-free and the chain touts hygiene and cleanliness as a point of focus moving forward. Verizon, as with many retailers, succeeded in adopting curbside as a central part of its fulfillment model.

“Although things are changing, customers are not looking for things to get more complex,” said Ms. Bourne. “In this day and age they want things to be easy and intuitive.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think appointment-based retail will thrive post-pandemic? In what others ways have retailers learned during the pandemic to make shopping experiences easier and more intuitive?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"While much of the new adoption is driven by safety concerns, I suspect a lot of it will persist in the post-COVID-19 economy."
"I think pieces of the appointment M.O. will stay, but it won’t ever be as ubiquitous as BOPIS/curbside, or e-commerce for that matter."
"Appointment shopping? In categories yes, but any regular retailer who thinks they can mandate shopping times and dates is flirting with disaster."

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "NRF 2021: Retailers make an appointment with the future"

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David Naumann

For retail segments that are known for their highly personalized services, appointments may become a common practice post-pandemic. Having an appointment makes the shopping session more serious and formal for both customers and store associates. Appointments also create more communication touch points with customers that enable retailers to reinforce the brand and the emotional connection with the customer. Another big benefit of appointments is that it avoids customers having to wait for an associate.

Neil Saunders

In some categories where people want advice or enhanced service appointments will certainly be relevant. Apple, for example, has always had an appointment system for its Genius Bar. Tailored apparel or interior design are other examples of where appointments will be relevant. However appointments for normal shopping. No, that’s for the birds! The vast majority of retailers operate on a model that relies on passing footfall and free and easy access to stores. That won’t change longer term.

Bob Amster

Neil, you stole my thunder! My thoughts precisely.

Suresh Chaganti

It works for high-end/service-oriented retailers. It actually presents an opportunity to differentiate. For stores in the neighborhood strip mall that rely on drive-by and walk-in traffic, not so much. But there is no choice but to ramp up their social media outreach, local events, mailers, at-home delivery, and e-commerce to stay afloat.

Dick Seesel

Even when customers feel safer returning to brick-and-mortar shopping, there will be some changes based on what worked during the pandemic. Curbside pickup is probably one of these, and appointment-based shopping is another.

As Neil points out, this doesn’t work for every kind of retail business but for some high-touch categories it makes sense. (After all, most of us are already accustomed to making appointments to see the barber or stylist.) A store like Verizon or Apple can’t thrive purely on appointments in the future, but it can provide higher levels of service and forecast its staffing needs more accurately.

Steve Dennis

Appointment-based shopping is hardly new. Plenty of luxury fashion stores have done it for years (it was quite common when I was at Neiman Marcus more than a decade ago), as have retailers like Apple. Any brand that is looking to deliver a remarkable, harmonized shopping experience should always be dissecting the customer journey of its most important customer segments seeking to remove friction points (what I call “discordant notes”) and discovering ways to amplify the wow. While much of the new adoption is driven by safety concerns, I suspect a lot of it will persist in the post-COVID-19 economy as consumers are finding it to be a highly useful feature and retailers will have already made the investments to digitally (and operationally) enable it.

Lee Peterson

Apple’s been doing appointments at the Genius Bar for decades so, in instances like that, where you need one-on-one service or advice/repairs, it makes a lot of sense. But if I want to go try on a shirt, it can quickly become untenable in terms of cost for retailers. I think pieces of the appointment M.O. will stay, but it won’t ever be as ubiquitous as BOPIS/curbside, or e-commerce for that matter.

Jeff Sward

Sometimes shopping is just shopping. Browsing, cruising, seeing what there is to see.
It’s open ended and exploring/experimenting with various options is the mission. But I think more often shopping is an assignment, a task with a specific goal in mind. And there an appointment makes perfect sense. I know the outcome I want, but I’ll need help, advice, counsel to get there. Suitsupply nailed it for their genre of product.

Georganne Bender

There are certain retailers where I know I need to make an appointment, and it has been necessary during the pandemic because of limits on how many people can be in a store at one time. But when this is over people are going to want to shop when they want to shop. I completely agree with Neil, shopping by appointment isn’t going to fly. Can you imagine being told you can only go to Target between 1:00 and 2:30 on a Tuesday or not at all? Not gonna happen.

Gary Sankary

The value proposition here is the relationship between the level of customer interaction necessary to make the sale or provide the service and the benefits to the company to make this investment. For high end retail, as has been noted here by my colleagues, this makes sense. Many were already doing this. The pandemic has moved more customers to want use this option and I think retailers who are in the segment are delighted. If you would have told them two years ago that they would see an increase in customers who want to make appointments to come in and shop — they’d have been all-in.

I am interested to see what happens at the other end of the market – appointments to shop grocery or mass. This is all about managing crowds and giving customers a safer experience with less traffic in the stores. I don’t have a good sense that these schemes have panned out well, mostly because in many places the demand just wasn’t there.

Ryan Mathews

Shopping by appointment will have a limited – but potentially lucrative – life post-COVID-19. I totally agree this will only work for high-end shoppers in certain categories. I can see the “No appointment necessary” ads from more conventional retailers already. Some people will like the sense of privilege associated with a one-on-one high-end shopping experience, just not when then are buying house paint. It won’t be for everyone, or even a substantial segment of anyone – but on the very highest end of retailing it may be a very profitable niche for a limited, but lucrative, consumer segment.

Shep Hyken

Appointments with salespeople were around long before the pandemic. They were considered optional, and often were part of a higher level of service – for higher ticket items. The personal shoppers at Nordstrom, Saks, etc. come to mind. Car dealerships did this with their top customers. With COVID-19 these options became necessary to stay in business and keep customers feeling comfortable and confident. The appointments will become more common as we exit the pandemic. Customers are getting used to it – and they like it. Personal attention!

Rich Kizer

Appointment shopping? In categories yes, but any regular retailer who thinks they can mandate shopping times and dates is flirting with disaster. It’s a competitive market. Always will be. We’re a service business at the customer’s convenience. Always have been, always will be. You have the power to set appointments only when you supply a unique service or product. The test for being able to set appointments? Ask yourself what is that special, exclusive product you sell that is not easily found anywhere else in your market.

Ananda Chakravarty

Appointment based shopping is still a niche market space and is effectively a logistical issue typically driven by demand. When a nail salon can’t manage hundreds of people at its door, they must resort to scheduling to manage resources (pedicurists etc.) and their availability. The problem doesn’t exist if demand doesn’t exist. The real question here is whether the demand for shopping in stores remains and if so, is it enough to justify the added friction to customer experiences where they now are required to arrive at a specific location on time. Busy customers may enjoy the option to schedule, and certainly in this age of COVID-19, customers will forgive and even appreciate appointments, but it will not be sustainable after some normalcy begins to return in the market.

Oliver Guy

Appointment based approaches are interesting for a number of reasons. They have thrived in some environments as ways to buy online – consumer electronics and high-end fashion retailers have experimented with this.
In terms of physical retail, while it could potentially reduce impulse purchases I have heard anecdotal examples where jewelers have found it reduce time-wasting customers who just want to look at items – thus allowing them to concentrate on customers who are serious about making a purchase.

"While much of the new adoption is driven by safety concerns, I suspect a lot of it will persist in the post-COVID-19 economy."
"I think pieces of the appointment M.O. will stay, but it won’t ever be as ubiquitous as BOPIS/curbside, or e-commerce for that matter."
"Appointment shopping? In categories yes, but any regular retailer who thinks they can mandate shopping times and dates is flirting with disaster."

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