By Meredith O'Shaugnessy, independent creative brand and retail strategist at Meredith Collective

Coronavirus has been the final reckoning for great swathes of retail, and it’s been brutal. Some high street stalwarts won’t open their doors again. With caution front of mind, it might be tempting for retailers to throw creativity to the wind. My plea is don’t. Creativity is what will save you. With shops reopening their doors here’s how they can respond with creativity right now to draw in new fans, responsibly.

  1. Safe retail doesn’t need to be sterile
Safety is everyone’s priority but that doesn’t mean that the experience of a clean environment needs to be devoid of personality.

Let’s consider queuing, which will continue to be a fact of life as we maintain social distancing. Take a leaf from Disneyworld’s book. Ok, you might not be able to build full-scale immersive queue experiences but creative touches will make all the difference. From live music to creative lighting, fragrance to foliage to interactive AR games there are ways to make queuing that bit less onerous and a little more enjoyable.

Similarly, hand sanitising stations are ripe for creative redesigns. Take inspiration the ‘Fountain of Hygiene’, a competition from London’s Design Museum, to reimagine hand sanitising. The winners included a bubble machine, seaweed encased capsules and colour-changing gels. There’s no reason creativity can’t find its way into hand cleaning and even become a moment of fun.

  1. Use space to create stories (not just sell stuff)
In January, Canadian outerwear retailer Canada Goose opened a new store in Toronto without any inventory. It sounds crazy but it's incredibly clever. Instead of racks of clothes, customers are treated to a multi-sensory experience so they can understand why its coats have a high price tag.

The entrance to the store is a glass walkway that simulates cracking ice. Customers then enter the ‘Gear Room’ in order to select a coat before entering ‘The Cold Room’ where freezing arctic conditions are replicated up to -12 degrees celsius, including real snow. The walls display films about cold and nature in an excellent example of brand storytelling. Customers can order in-store and have the item delivered to their home that same day, or the next day nationwide.

  1. Blend physical and digital for 360 experiences
Many brands have worked hard during lockdown to increase their digital presence and make it relevant for increasingly experience-hungry consumers. So now’s the time to translate online engagement to offline retail; take note of the fact that (surprisingly) almost all members of Generation Z prefer to shop in bricks-and-mortar stores!

Contrary to popular assumption, the future is not online - for Gen Z “their last great experience is their new expectation”. More than any other generation, Gen Z is not simply seeking places to buy but demanding experiences rooted in personal connection. A smartphone is a necessity but being able to step into a meaningful, in-person experience is what captures them.

  1. Get close and cosy with partners
Take Secret Cinema who paired up with Haagen Daas to launch its lockdown friendly ‘Secret Sofa’. With travel again allowed, it’s now tapped into the resurgence of Drive-In Cinema, partnering with home of racing cars, Goodwood as its premier venue and speaker brand JBL for in-car audio. Clearly this is a different proposition than redesigning a retail space, but it can teach us a lesson in smart partnership. Four brands, all somewhat curtailed during lockdown can, together offer a smart, social and safe experience by coming together.

This takes creative thinking - how can you offer more by partnering with others with suitably flexible spaces? Or how can logistical challenges be solved through others’ products?

When we were called to create an exciting launch for a range of Whirlpool appliances we recognised that placing, what some might argue as a less "sexy" product with luxury goods would make for a more engaging experience for customers. We developed the award-winning pop-up 'Keeping up with the Jones’. This walk-through multi-room experience meant each brand benefited from the other.

It will be months, maybe years before shoppers return in their pre-COVID numbers. However, as WARC’s Annabel Hamill says, retail stores must “find a new balance between bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce.”

Of course, retailers need to ensure safety as they reopen their doors, but why not go a step further and underpin safe shopping with engaging creativity?