Doug Stephens, in his new book, makes an important observation that “the whole society is being pulled out of the industrial era and across the threshold of the digital age.” He continues, “Though 2020 was challenging for a lot of retail companies, it has made big companies like Amazon AMZN , Alibaba BABA , JD.com, and Walmart WMT even stronger and better prepared to capture more of the global economy.”

With this premise, readers should rush out to buy his book. (Resurrecting Retail. Figure 1 Publishing, 256pp, $28.00). Stephens believes we are past the time when the average retailer could win with an efficient supply chain and a steady flow of exciting products to customers. Today, with technology, a brand can engage with customers in more personalized ways and start building the connection even before they enter the store. Social and digital platforms add an experiential element to the decision of where to shop and what to buy. Without that personal tie, it is too easy to lose customers to those giant retailers.

Why is this so important to address now? According to psychologists, it takes an average of two months for people to form new habits. We are now over a year in the pandemic caused by COVID-19 and one can assume that many people have formed new habits. Many people have shifted to digital shopping – and like it. E-commerce has flourished, and it will not be easy to lure customers back to brick-and-mortar stores. 

Brands must think about purpose and personal relevance if they hope to win in the marketplace today. By way of example, The Business of Fashion points to Nike NKE and claims that we are buying a cultural point of view along with the products. Nike answers a very specific consumer question; the question is “Who inspires me?’.

In this post-pandemic world, that thinking changes the rules of retail marketing and merchandising. The media will no longer just serve as the publisher of a brand’s message; rather, every form of media must be an extension of the store, says Stephens. Stores can no longer merely invite customers to the store; their message must evoke some emotional connection even before customers enter the store, so they are motivated to visit the store.  And technology today allows us to introduce social media as a means of communicating new ideas and new fashion. These marketing tools offer opportunity for an interactive immersion in the brand and its products that can entice the customer to come into the store.

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I have commented several times in previous blogs that people are afraid to shop in crowded stores and face the threat of an infection. Sure, stores will take safety measures so their selling floors are clean, and restrooms are gleaming. They will accommodate new habits so shoppers find it easy to maintain social distancing and support apple pay use. Of course, many customers will continue to wear masks.

Such health and safety precautions are necessary, but they will not give customers a compelling reason to visit the store. With merchandise available anytime online, store shopping must provide additional gratification so customers will spend their time (and money) with the retailer.

Shopping in a store must be considered a pastime and an enjoyable one at that. Today, stores compete for leisure time with art galleries, restaurants, concerts and even parks. It is up to stores to make the pastime an event, and to make shopping a memorable experience. Today’s stores are no longer just a distribution center of merchandise. Rather, they must offer a memorable experience to have customers return.

Some of the ideas of a memorable experience could include having an art exhibition in the store, reviving fashion shows on a runway or even have a stage performance with good actors. After all, the retailer is an expert at staging events. I have a memory of a department store in Bern, Switzerland dressing its entire staff in opera costumes; that strikes me as an exciting event that shoppers would not want to miss. It adds a touch of whimsy to the reality of in-store shopping. And today’s digital media makes it easy to use audio-visual teasers to market such an event.

Brands must think about what message they want a customer to retain. It can no longer just be a call to come to a store, there must be a cultural message that touches a personal nerve in the customer. Walmart has streamlined its digital communications to be more engaging – and it works. It can work for other companies who understand the power of digital communications. It is time companies look ahead and adjust to the new mood and realize that their brand must reach out and touch customers long before they come into a store.