On March 18, 2020, executives at Dick’s Sporting Goods made a difficult decision. With the COVID-19 pandemic gaining ground in the United States, the retailer announced it would voluntarily shut the doors of its more than 800 stores to keep customers and the company’s employees safe. But while customers couldn’t wander into a Dick’s location to buy sports gear, the company still had plenty of lacrosse sticks, baseball mitts, and soccer cleats to sell.
Like many retailers, Dick’s acted quickly to keep inventory moving during this unexpected—and seismic—shift in how consumers bought and paid for goods. That meant pivoting to online sales and contactless curbside pickup, all while keeping each transaction as headache-free as possible for both customers and the company. “COVID accelerated these changes,” says Steve Miller, Dick’s senior vice president of strategy, e-commerce, and analytics. “As an industry, we would have eventually reached this point. But what might have taken a few years to take hold took place in a matter of weeks.”
Customers quickly got used to having a multitude of shopping options to choose from. But the rapid digital transition wasn’t temporary; customers have continued to embrace the flexibility of purchasing options such as curbside pickup or mobile ordering. That poses a challenge for retailers who were unexpectedly thrust into this new, omnichannel shopping world: How to continue to best serve customers and deepen those relationships regardless of how they choose to buy. “It’s important that we continually innovate to meet our guests where they are on their shopping journeys,” says Sasha Ostrozovich, senior user experience designer at the country’s largest beauty retailer, Ulta Beauty.
Like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta Beauty saw its guests make a rapid shift to digital channels after the company shuttered its more than 1,250 stores in March 2020. The company’s website and app became the primary means for buying products such as blush or hydrating cleansers. “We had to pivot in many ways to remain connected with our guests in meaningful ways,” Ostrozovich says. “And, of course, we adapted our digital experience in a variety of ways to meet their needs.”
Indeed, it’s not enough to simply offer a range of buying options. These days, consumers expect each buying channel to be fast and hassle free. Dick’s Sporting Goods worked to refine its BOPIS (“buy online, pick up in store”) approach to make curbside pickup smoother for customers and employees. Customers initially needed to call the store when they arrived and wait for a sales associate to deliver their item. Dick’s looked for opportunities to make that process more efficient, like adding Wi-Fi outside of its stores to help employees speed the checkout process.
“It was a quick pivot for us because we weren’t focused on curbside,” says Vlad Rak, Dick’s chief technology officer. “We were able to adopt it and make it available in short order because of our years of planning and investment, both in technology and in top talent who could get the job done. That allowed us to be in the right place at the right time.”
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
The pandemic gave retailers the opportunity to focus on digital channels simply because customers weren’t making in-store purchases. These days, however, customers are both in stores and online—and retailers need to be ready. “You really need to be able to serve all of those different customers and meet them where they want to be,” Rak says.
To that end, retailers like Dick’s and Ulta Beauty are experimenting with ways to enhance both the in-store and digital experiences. At Dick’s, that’s meant creating its House of Sport concept, where customers can try out gear in stores on a turf field, a rock-climbing wall, batting cages, and golf hitting bays. “We’re seeing that people want to be in our stores to try products—to see how a glove fits or a club swings or a shoe responds,” Miller says.
Meanwhile, Ulta Beauty’s GLAMlab app lets users virtually try on makeup on the go or in store. The app includes thousands of products and leverages AI to help users find the right match. “It served as a fun, seamless digital alternate while stores were closed and testers were removed after we reopened,” Ostrozovich says. “GLAMLAb has seen incredible engagement throughout the pandemic—and still today.”
As the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, it’s clear that omnichannel retail is here to stay. For retailers, that means continuing to offer customers personalized shopping experiences that cater to their buying preferences. That evolution can’t happen in a vacuum, says Ostrozovich, adding that Ulta Beauty frequently conducts remote usability testing to determine what guests like most—or least—about the company’s digital offerings. “We pride ourselves on being a brand that listens,” she says. “Guest feedback is instrumental to continuously improve [the customer] experience.”
“The pandemic dramatically influenced how consumers interact with retailers, requiring them to optimize—virtually overnight—the digital channels they use to reach and transact with customers,” says Janelle Estes, chief insights officer at UserTesting. “With the early successes we’ve seen from retailers transforming their omnichannel offerings amidst COVID, the industry has proven it can adapt and rise to meet the ever-evolving demands of its customers.”