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Everyone in retail is already tired of hearing about "the new normal." The COVID-19 pandemic hit the retail and restaurant sectors as hard as any others, and in the chaotic aftermath, no one seems to know exactly what this "new normal" will look like.

Does "new normal" mean stores will go about business as usual, but employees will wear masks? Will restaurants redesign their spaces to create extra room between parties? What kind of changes will retail locations make, and will they successfully bring customers flooding back through the doors?

In truth, the new normal doesn't refer to the actions of stores. The population — i.e., consumers — gets to decide what stays and what doesn't. That goes for social norms and brands alike. The world after the pandemic will never be the same, and retailers don't get to decide what that world will look like.

That's not to say retailers should play the waiting game to see which way the wind blows. On the contrary, many stores can barely afford to wait another week, let alone months, to decide what to do next. Retailers must seize this reopening window as an opportunity to make a proactive appeal to the consumers of the new reality.The only question is: who are they?

A breakdown of the post-COVID consumer

After stores reopen and shoppers cautiously return, many retailers will go under anyway. Some will be unlucky, but most can make the necessary adjustments to appeal to a market that eagerly awaits their return. The brands that survive will be the ones that seek not to get back to business but to exceed the expectations of a new wave of consumers.

1. Increased sensitivity to health concerns
The obvious comes first. People who have lived through the COVID-19 pandemic will take their health more seriously in public spaces. Businesses will have an incentive to appeal to health-conscious consumers, especially in the early days of reopening, to convince the reduced number of active shoppers to visit.
Not all shoppers will wear masks, but many will. Having employees wear masks as well will make shoppers feel more comfortable and validate their choice to protect themselves, as many may still feel uncertain about wearing masks in public. Brands and teams that embrace health-conscious habits can help concerned shoppers feel better about going outside again.
Be ready to see a halo effect regarding health and cleanliness after shoppers return. People who learned to watch out for an airborne virus will also want to see cleaner restrooms, countertops, refrigeration units, and the like. Consider digital alternatives to traditionally physical items, such as signage, and keep all display areas looking pristine.

2. New expectations of convenience
When shelter-in-place orders first drove people to quarantine in their homes, they still needed essentials such as groceries. Restaurants and grocery stores responded to the need by investing heavily in curbside and delivery services. As the masses return, they may not want to go back to shopping the way they used to.
Apps like DoorDash and GrubHub have been on the rise for years. The gig economy empowered consumers with more choice in day-to-day errands, giving them back time in exchange for a surcharge on basic services. Now that more people have finally tried these services, many will prefer the convenience of online ordering, pickup, and delivery to the old ways of shopping in person.
Retailers, especially small retailers who deal in consumer goods instead of essentials, may struggle with this at first. Managing an online inventory for orders is a multi-person job, even for in-store pickup. Businesses that have a wide gap between current capabilities and curbside readiness should start preparing now for a world in which shoppers can choose how and where they shop.

3. Greater affinity for purpose-driven brands
Not everyone will shop purely online, of course. Many people will continue to visit stores. Our research in Q1 2020 discovered that people who want specific items, such as electronics or cleaning supplies, prefer to visit stores in person than to shop online. The pandemic may have shifted the proportions, but in general, people will continue to want to see and feel goods before they buy them.

Where they buy those goods may change, however. Beyond cleanliness, people want to know that the brands they trust with their safety and money care about the world in the same way they do. A company that claims to take safety seriously but gets caught shirking cleaning duties will not enjoy a favorable response.

Consumer demand for transparency and responsibility, just like consumer demand for convenience, has grown rapidly over the last decade. Now, businesses hoping to coax formerly quarantined shoppers out into the world must demonstrate their commitment to the greater good.

Most of the changes rising in consumer behavior began long before the pandemic, but recent events have accelerated adoption of new attitudes and practices. Instead of treating the "new normal" as an uncertain catchphrase, listen to the demands of customers and make long-term changes to prepare for sustained shifts.