In the Aisles: The retail experience comes second

Social distancing, no sampling, no in-store beauty care services, retailers focus on what’s vital during the coronavirus pandemic 

It’s truly been humbling to see how retailers and their employees have stepped up and continue to step up to ensure that consumers are stocked with food and virus-related goods during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a reminder of the role traditional retailing plays in our everyday lives.

This is to say, it’s not lost on me how important retailers are taking the situation and focusing on what’s most necessary, as they should. Because, retailers do have to make adjustments that go beyond the supply chain impact and keeping items stocked.

But retailing is experiential, and because of COVID-19, some of that experiential nature needs to be put aside. For a retailer like Ulta Beauty, this has been so impactful that as of Thursday, March 19 through Tuesday, March 31, Ulta will close physical stores altogether.

The beauty retailer with a very strong private label business and in-store services started by announcing it would postpone their highly interactive make-up, skincare and brow services inside Ulta locations. They also implemented a “no-touch” rule to their in-store display that helps shoppers match shades of color with make-up.

But as the coronavirus increases in the U.S., Ulta went further to close. 

“I want to make sure that our guests and associates know there is nothing more important than our collective health and safety,” said Mary Dillon, chief executive officer, Ulta Beauty in a statement. “We look forward to the time when we can re-open our stores, bring our associates back together, and invite you back into Ulta Beauty.”

Her statement at the end even subtly acknowledges the importance of Ulta as a retailer that engages with consumers. It’s a shopping experience that brings shoppers and associates together. Ulta closed its buy online pickup in store service but is keeping online shopping open through the Ulta app and online.

No doubt, e-commerce will continue to see an uptick, because if you can’t get the experience in-store, you might as well just order online. Amazon knows this and is hiring 100,000 more people to help in warehouses and delivery.

For grocery, drug, convenience and mass stores, their focus is on the essentials right now. Staff will practice social distancing with customers, impacting that experience in stores. Sampling has been suspended in stores, too.

And then there’s how far retailers go to offer innovative new products to differentiate themselves. Private brand suppliers who have been called upon by retailers to help provide that innovation will need to help focus on getting the most important products out quickly and efficiently. It’s less about offering the competitive, differentiated products, but retailing bonding as a whole to provide what’s needed.

Perhaps, when the pandemic does fade or slow, stores will get back to serving that experiential component in stores. And, maybe, shoppers will have a newfound appreciation for that experience that was missing.


Dan Ochwat is the executive editor of Drug Store News sister magazine Store Brands.

More Blog Posts In This Series

  • In the Aisles: Curbside pickup's big break

    Dan Ochwat examines how savvy shoppers have been leveraging curbside pickup at Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart and other retailers for some time, prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • In the Aisles: Virtual connections

    Dan Ochwat examines how COVID-19 has led retailers and suppliers to get creative about connecting virtually in the wake of several postponed or canceled industry events.
  • In the Aisles: Remaining a resource

    DSN editor in chief Seth Mendelson highlights how retailers are working to keep the in-store experience as painless as possible in trying times.