Next week, England will remove almost all coronavirus restrictions: Facemasks will no longer be legally required in many places in England and social distancing rules will come to an end. Whilst many people are excited to return to normal, a huge number of people are nervous about what a post-lockdown shopping experience looks like.

The EY Future Consumer Index found that 33% of consumers are extremely worried about their health when shopping in-store

Shopping anxiety

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, people have been asked to avoid shopping during busy times, shop alone if they can and maintain social distancing in shops. However, as England relaxes its coronavirus restrictions, shoppers are battling shopping (or post-lockdown) anxiety.

A dislike of crowded spaces is not a new worry among shoppers – prior to the pandemic, shoppers disliked crowds and were often put off from shopping in busy locations. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing fears and concerns.

When non-essential retail opened up in April 2021, researchers from several universities across the world suggested that a fear of crowds may be the “new normal”. Research on shoppers’ attitudes to shopping in-store after the pandemic seems to support this.

In a survey of 1000 UK consumers conducted in May 2021, more than half (53%) expressed a clear preference for stores to continue to enforce strict protection policies such as social distancing and mask-wearing. The same survey also found that more than a quarter (26%) of consumers “said they felt less comfortable visiting physical stores now compared with any point over the past 12 months” and 40% plan to avoid physical stores as much as possible.

The EY Future Consumer Index found that 33% of consumers are extremely worried about their health when shopping in-store and 43% are extremely concerned about their family’s health.

What can retailers do to make customers feel safe?

Whilst the government has stressed that it is safe to remove most coronavirus restrictions on 19th July, many shoppers are still anxious about going to shops and supermarkets without facemasks and the possibility of limited social distancing. Therefore, it lies with retailers to ensure that their customers still feel safe enough to come in-store rather than relying on e-commerce websites. With a dramatic shift to online shopping during the pandemic, ensuring that shoppers feel safe in-store is the key to retail recovery.

Research has found that shoppers are relying on in-store technology to help them feel comfortable and safe. Crowd-checking technologies have been implemented in many large shops and shopping centres in the UK. They inform shoppers how busy a shop or shopping centre is so they can make an informed decision on whether to enter. A study of 150 British shoppers who used crowd-checking technology found that 70% would use this technology to decide whether to visit a store. Additionally, 80% of people in the study found crowd-checking technologies reduced their shopping anxiety.

Some shops, such as Aldi, have also put traffic lights at store entrances where doors only open when the lights are green. This is another simple piece of technology that requires no interaction from the consumer, increasing the likelihood of adoption.

There are several apps that have emerged during the pandemic which are aimed at improving shopper’s safety. Crowdless is an app that allows shoppers to check whether a shop is crowded in real-time. The app uses “existing data sources, crowdsourced data and machine learning to determine how busy places are”. This allows shoppers to pick the best time for them to go shopping. Shoppers are also able to provide feedback about how crowded a place is which helps the app to improve accuracy.

However, it is not just technology that can help shoppers feel safe. While facemasks will not be legally required after 19th July, some retailers have already said they will encourage staff and shoppers to wear them in order to minimise the risks.

In order to encourage shoppers to visit stores, retailers will need to ensure they can manage shopping anxiety surrounding Covid-19. Using a mix of technologies and encouraging safe practices such as facemasks and social distancing should lower consumer nervousness and help the in-store experience.

This is the first article in our Shopping after Covid-19 series. Read the next post here.