Life Tech Queues at Kmart and foot traffic trackers: COVID-safe shopping arrives
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Queues at Kmart and foot traffic trackers: COVID-safe shopping arrives

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Melburnians are finally out of lockdown and able to roam the streets – and shops – with relative freedom once more.

The rest of Australia might have watched on baffled as eager shoppers lined up at midnight to storm Kmart, but the state is actually pioneering COVID-safe shopping, experts say.

Kmart (which has been unofficially crowned Melbourne’s favourite thing to do) has been encouraging shoppers to book their shopping trip online, in a sign the store has been that popular.

In a bid to minimise physical queues outside, Kmart shoppers can book 20-minute periods online at their favourite store, at a time that suits them.

Meanwhile, Chadstone shopping centre has showcased its ‘COVID control room’, which assesses the capacity of the popular destination.

Not only are retailers grappling with stemming the excitement of in-store shoppers, we’re heading into peak retail period: Christmas.

And as anyone who has tried to shop at Chadstone in December can attest to, peak takes on a whole different meaning.

Second to health and safety, retailers will be looking to make consumers feel at ease enough to shop and spend money, consumer psychology and marketing expert Jana Bowden said.

“Australians consumers are hyper aware of the need to shop safely,” Associate Professor Bowden, at Macquarie University, said.

Professor Bowden cited data from McKinsey, which showed in-store cleaning and correct social distancing procedures are the top two factors that decide if a shopper will step inside a store.

What about the little guys?

As images of customers absolutely flooding Kmart reached us on Wednesday morning, many people were quick to ask – what about small businesses?

Much of the debate about lifting lockdown restrictions in Victoria has centred around supporting locally owned businesses.

Retail researcher Louise Grimmer believes small businesses won’t be left behind in the retail rush.

It’s Christmas retail – but not like we’re used to. Photo: Getty

Even though they may not have the might to buy queue-up apps or install heat-mapping wi-fi trackers, they’re in touch with their customers on a much deeper level, said Dr Grimmer, of the University of Tasmania.

“Their stores are smaller, so it’s much easier to keep track of customer numbers and to control numbers in stores. These retailers are using social media and digital marketing to great effect as a result of lockdowns and restrictions on shopping in stores, which means they can personalise their communications with customers and ensure they provide a COVID-safe shopping experience,” Dr Grimmer said.

“We have seen a real trend towards supporting smaller stores, and this will be really important as we head into the Christmas shopping period.

“This year is arguably the most important Christmas shopping period for retailers around Australia, and the world for that matter, but especially so for those stores in Melbourne.”

Bouncing back

Shopping centres will have to put in a lot of work to restore the confidence of customers, experts the world over agree.

We’ve grown increasingly used to online shopping – even click and collect – and nothing quite says ‘virus’ like stepping inside an enclosed space with thousands of other people, all of which could at some point touch the same item/door handle/lift button as you.

But Australia’s retailers are nothing if not resilient – and Professor Bowden said we can bet they’ll be doing their best to keep us safe, and make us feel safe.

“The power is in the retailers’ hands to put consumers minds at ease,” she said.

“The key will be ensuring that the efforts that they go to are visible for consumers, continually reinforced and made top of mind for consumers.

“COVID-safe marshals to manage queues, manual or automated consumer counting technology at store entry, clearly planned out queuing systems, and the now typical sanitiser stations are all obvious steps that can be taken.”

Professor Bowden said Vicinity, the group behind Chadstone shopping centre, was leading the way with its technologies – particularly the function that will allow customers to ‘see ahead’ to how busy the centres are, and make the decision if they feel safe enough to shop.