What will shopping in Canada look like in the aftermath of coronavirus?

Augmented reality, texting to book your time slot at the mall, and government safety regulations—what shopping will look like in a post-Covid world

Ross Dias
A near empty Yorkdale Mall during lunch hours in Toronto, Ont. on Mar. 13, 2020. (Dominic Chan/CP)

A near empty Yorkdale Mall during lunch hours in Toronto, Ont. on Mar. 13, 2020. (Dominic Chan/CP)

It’s 2025 and a customer is on the hunt for a stylish jacket to wear to a close friend’s wedding. They step in front of an augmented reality (AR)-enhanced mirror in their closet where they can swipe through a few local retailers and virtually try on a couple options in their size. If they’re satisfied, the customer would proceed to check out at this point. But since the jacket is for an important event, they’d like to make sure it’s the right fit. 

They arrive at the clothing store for their pre-set appointment, also scheduled through the AR mirror. The store has a reception and large fitting rooms, but no visible racks of clothing in order to minimize unnecessary touching. They are greeted with their preferred beverage—based on information stored in a customer profile from their last visit—and shown to their room where they see their jacket in person for the first time, try it on and make the purchase through their phone. 

In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, this scenario is how shopping in Canada might play out in homes and stores across the country, according to Sangeetha Chandru, a retail strategy and transformation partner at Deloitte Canada. Gone are the casual store visits during an office worker’s lunch hour, or a leisurely weekend stroll with friends where you wander into a store and buy something you didn’t know you were looking for. 

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Whether you’re in the market for a new mattress or a pair of sunglasses, COVID-19 will make shopping more insular. Retailers will create more personalized experiences for customers, since only a few will be able to enter physical stores at a time. These shifts have already begun: malls are relying on digital assistance for customer support; beauty and eyewear customers are testing out products on their faces using AR; and retailers are collaborating to streamline customer visits to reduce their browsing time. 

In the immediate Covid recovery period, retailers will also want to reduce touch points, in other words, unnecessary interactions between employees and customers as well as long dwell periods spent in stores, to avoid further spread. So cash and casual browsing will be replaced by an increased dependency on technology for contactless payments, customer service and fitting rooms equipped with AR. These changes will also be driven by consumer behaviour, according to Myles Gooding, the lead national retail consultant at PwC Canada. 

“To return to previous spending behaviours, retailers have to understand that customers will want to see things like plexiglass barriers, the use of PPE, frequent disinfection, a distanced layout and hand sanitizer availability, to build trust,” Gooding says. 

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As Toronto’s Yorkdale readies its return, general manager Claire Santamaria is closely watching for insight from sister properties Southcentre and Kingsway malls in Alberta, which opened on May 14. Visitors are connecting with the malls through text messages and online chat to plan their visits. “This service has been in place for years but has never been used the way it is now,” says Santamaria. “Customers are arriving with purpose and leaving with purchases.” 

Nordstrom Canada is one retailer that relied on revenue generated from its physical stores before coronavirus. Nordstrom operates 12 stores in Canada, and while the first location opened at Calgary’s Chinook Centre in September 2014, the department store didn’t launch an e-commerce channel until March 2020, coinciding with the onset of the pandemic. 

Now, store events have migrated online as Nordstrom reopens physical locations in a phased market-by-market approach, according to senior vice president and regional manager Michelle Haggard. Customers are connecting with employees and brand partners through virtual events hosted on the store’s website, where product links are available for customers who wish to shop featured items after the event. 

Ultimately, the stores that present the most trustworthy and most frictionless interactions both digitally and in person will drive wider change within the industry, leading to the futuristic scenario described earlier. To analyze the stickiness of these retail changes as a result of changing consumer behaviour, Chandru looked at the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis where there was a loss of consumer confidence in economic recovery. Back then, customers switched to cheaper brands and started shopping at discount retailers. A decade later, these changes have not reversed. When customers shop in a certain way for a prolonged period of time, it becomes a habit, Chandru says. 

Another example is mattress shopping, where customers are more willing to forgo experiencing the product before purchase. Five years ago, this wasn’t expected. “We’re seeing that customers don’t mind shopping online as long as they have a 90-day guarantee so if the experience is not up to spec, their money is safe and they can return it,” she adds. 

These were rising trends in the industry long before the advent of the coronavirus, but the crisis has accelerated the timeline for this evolution in how we shop. In addition, there will be an unprecedented level of government interference in what was once an under-regulated consumer industry when it comes to cleanliness and safety—especially compared to an adjacent service-based industry like food and drink. 

Further, as workplaces continue to allow employees to work from home permanently in the shadow of decisions at the head offices of Shopify and Twitter, consumers will need fewer clothes, and therefore fewer places to shop for them. This course correction is inevitable. If you compare Canada’s population size to its retail square footage and inventory levels, Gooding says, we are over-retailed. 

Technology will allow retailers to connect with a wider audience while respecting new restrictions and creating fewer bricks-and-mortar locations, as seen in the very effective supply chain management following the initial explosion of grocery delivery

Innovations like AR have been steadily growing—on the fringes—of the non-essential retail experience for years, but this crisis is set to give new technologies space to become mainstream fixtures. Beauty, in particular, has seen a remarkable use of AR. “Sephora was an early player in AR, launching our Virtual Artist technology back in 2016, which differentiated us from other beauty retailers in Canada,” says Scott Kerby, the VP of stores and client services at Sephora. Alongside 78 stores in malls and on high streets in Canada, Sephora’s robust library of digital tools allows clients to test, try, and experience a range of beauty products and learn new make-up techniques virtually using facial-recognition software. 

And Shoppers can currently head to other widely available platforms including Instagram, Shopify, Warby Parker and Ikea to test out the look of sunglasses or the placement of a couch before making a purchase. I happened upon my first experience with AR shopping while scrolling through Instagram a few weeks ago when an independent fashion brand Jacquemus released a filter featuring their sunglasses. 

I turned on my front facing camera and held my phone up until the facial recognition kicked in. It uses the same technology from Facebook’s Spark AR that pulls up the goofy or pretty-face filters that are so ubiquitous on the platform. The interface was intuitive and easy to use. A tap on the screen changed the colour of the frames and the glasses stayed in place as I turned my head to check out my profile. In seconds, I had a favourite pair picked out.

Innovations like this mean that in the next three-to-five years, we will see some fundamental leaders emerge, Chandru says. Working from home and government regulations will bring about changes to retail that are a direct result of the pandemic, but other trends around the digital customer experience, personalization and experiential store were already gaining momentum prior to the pandemic.  “We were headed here anyway,” she adds. “Covid-19 didn’t necessarily change the trajectory of retail. It just made it that much faster.”