How Essential Retailers Can Amplify Community Connection During Uncertain Times
By  Alexis Vera
Essential Retailers

The pillars of our communities are what keep us unified despite our relative distance from one another. The value essential retailers offer during challenging and uncertain times goes far beyond product and revenue—they play an integral role in our societal connections.  

Throughout nearly the entirety of 2020, we found ourselves living in an unprecedented and uncertain environment. We were being asked to live and engage in our communities differently, to adjust our collective reality to stay safe and healthy as the world deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is in these trying times that the pillars of our communities must thrive and keep us unified as one connected human race despite our relative distance from one another. 

What we knew to be true has been proven beyond doubt in during the pandemic: that essential retailers like grocers, hardware stores, convenience retailers, and pharmacies carry a heavy load supporting their communities through times of uncertainty. 

Facing this new reality, we ask ourselves: What can we do? What should we do? These are uniquely challenging questions as we adjust to social distancing, sheltering in place, working remotely, and seeking out only the necessities. 

Retailers deemed "essential" to provide our communities with daily needs can continue to expect moderate to heavy traffic. This provides an opportunity to remind consumers that the value these retailers offer goes far beyond product and revenue; they play an integral role in our society, from our food supply chain, to employment, to the availability of necessary goods and services.  

As retailers address this unprecedented landscape, we are eager to share five ideas to help consumers and retailers interact in safe and informative store settings. 

1. Tell a different story  

In-store signage, promotional messaging, digital, social, and web are all channels that can be leveraged to tell a story about community and your place within it. Consumers are looking for ways to feel grounded, connected, and supported in a time when they're asked to alter their routines and avoid contact. Remind them that you are here, you've always been here, and you are in this with them. Be vulnerable, share, and connect on a more human level.  


It's time to reach beyond promotion to provide the level of support that consumers are desperately seeking. Business will ebb and flow, but a retailer's place in the community, and in consumers' hearts, cannot be understated in this market. 

2. Be a community center 

Many core consumers know their local retailers for a particular set of products and services, but in those aisles are also daily necessities that will keep us all afloat over this period of uncertainty. Why not curate these simple items around an initiative to serve the community?  

Consider creating a space in the store focused on necessities, feature them as you would for a new product or promotion, and make it clear to the consumer that you understand their priorities and are here to serve your community first and foremost. Imagine a feature display, custom zone, or key promotional space dedicated to specific community needs. 

3. Simplify the exchange 

For many, human contact has quickly become a source of anxiety, especially for the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions. Many retailers are already making adaptations, like grocers setting aside "vulnerable only" shopping hours before regular store hours to reduce the risk of exposure via proximity and surface transfer.  

Consider implementing new online order and pick up options that make it easy for customers to get what they need while reducing the stress that comes with interacting in public. The use of product lockers, drive thru windows, pick-up zones, or sanitized packaging would allow retailers to serve their communities while putting consumers' minds at ease. Why not take lessons from disruptive retailers like Amazon and create no-touch options for the consumer? Exterior product lockers with sanitizer are a great start! 

4. Amplify more than products  

While society is confined to the home, we're confronted with a constant deluge of information from the media and our personal networks, primarily consumed through those ever-present mobile devices. It can be tough to decipher facts from fear, not to mention those in our society who aren't as well connected to dependable news. As a consistent, reliable pillar of the community, this is an opportunity to help by providing simple, straightforward information as we know it.  

Let the local consumer know that this is a safe, trusted place to come, not just for products, but for a deeper understanding of what you need to know. Simple facts, tips and tricks amplified honestly, directly, and without spin or positioning, built to serve the community. 

5. A virtual human touch 

Let's find different ways to deliver that smile, that handshake, the punctuation on great service that makes physical retail a truly connected and human experience. Service design can be challenging in the best of circumstances, but this is an opportunity to augment those interactions in a time where acts of kindness and service go a long way.  

Digital and social follow ups, innovative and unique uses of loyalty programs, and on-site communications can emanate that human experience if properly deployed. What if we created a gratitude campaign using these unique tools to provide the human "touch" people are seeking? 

We are truly a global community living through these unique and trying times, and there will continue to be tangible retail needs that consumers rely on as we get through the COVID-19 pandemic as one. Now more than ever, we are reminded that we collectively hold each other up. That our communities are more than just social circles and networks. That we depend on each other for our daily needs. Now is the time to step up for your communities and prove to them that you're here to help through and through. 

About Alexis Vera 

Alexis Vera is a leading voice in retail and experience design, with a career spanning several world class, retail-centric design firms and executing projects for globally recognized brands like Nordstrom, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Samsung. In 2015, Alex was named to Design:Retail’s inaugural 40 under 40, recognizing his achievements throughout his 20 years in the industry.