Originally published in Chain Store Age. 

Brick-and-mortar stores have been facing significant challenges in recent years, but 2020 has introduced challenges that no one could have ever predicted. Due to the pandemic, many people are staying away from physical stores. How can retail chains fight back during the 2020 holiday shopping season – especially when cold winter weather in many parts of the country will force shoppers to stand outside because of in-store capacity limits?

First, let’s look at the numbers. More than 220 million Americans live in states where the winter months average freezing temperatures. In many of these places, there is also snow for several months a year – including the lucrative Thanksgiving-to-Christmas shopping window.

During normal years, shoppers would simply bundle up for the short walk from their cars into the warmth of a retailer. This year, because of the pandemic, that’s not going to be possible in many states as a new wave of COVID-19 cases continues to take a toll across the country. Instead, customers are going to be forced to wait in lines outside until they are allowed to enter. That’s inconvenient during the warmer months, but it’s not sustainable in the dead of winter. No one wants to stand outside in Minneapolis when it’s 20° below zero.

If shoppers can’t stand outside because of the weather, and they can’t stand inside because of the virus, what options do they have? Unfortunately, the choice may be to buy gifts online. This isn’t a new trend by any means, but in a critical year like this one, it could mean the difference between staying open and shutting down.

Stores need tools not only to attract customers, but to keep them safe and comfortable while they wait to shop. This is where radical thinking needs to replace tried-and-true approaches. After all, it’s difficult to do anything the “normal” way during times that are anything but normal.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many stores have allowed shoppers to place their orders online and pick them up in person. That worked pretty well during the summer months, but it’s not going to be sustainable as the weather gets colder. That’s why retailers need to expand their “click and collect” programs so that as many people as possible can pick up their items without leaving their cars.

As an added feature, they need to specify tight windows of time for pick-ups to minimize the amount of time that people will need to wait in their cars, even if their heaters are on. Any opportunity to encourage shoppers to visit the location without having to endure the cold will greatly benefit retailers.

For retailers that don’t have large parking lots or where employees can’t deliver to the car will need to make the line experience as pleasant as possible, even in the middle of the winter. For example, one Canadian donut store chain has installed heat lamps at many of its stores so that shoppers waiting outside will be able to get some warmth. Of course, lamps are no match for a cold arctic wind, which is why stores should consider putting up temporary shelters to block the effects of an icy blast.

But what if there was a way to get people into stores without making them wait in their cars or in line outside? That’s where technology can play a critical role in eliminating the need to stand six feet apart in a frozen parking lot in upstate New York or Montana. Stores can use SMS texting to let people know the status of their purchases, including when it’s ready for pick up. This has already been done by some retailers, but during this busy holiday season it should be a much more prevalent approach to providing excellent service and keeping customers engaged.

Retailers can also implement app-based tools that let people get into virtual lines when waiting to shop in the physical store. This is a fundamentally different approach than texting, which is better suited for curbside pick-up rather than in-store shopping. Instead, shoppers can simply join a virtual queue from their personal device and receive an email or text letting them know that it’s time to get in their cars and head to the store.

For example, if 100 people wanted to come to a store, but only 10 people were allowed inside at a time, prospective shoppers might have to wait outside for an hour or two just for the privilege of shopping. Most of them would walk away after about 20 minutes, costing the store revenues during the peak shopping time of the year.

By using a line management app, however, the stores can inform people that they are No. 67 in line and that they can walk inside with no waiting in about 90 minutes. Shoppers can factor in drive times or other stops, arriving just in time to head inside. It really is that easy.

There is no single solution that is going to help retailers overcome what 2020 has wrought. Social distancing rules are still in effect, and will only become stricter as virus numbers go up. The cold weather will make it increasingly challenging for retailers to ask their customers to line up outside in order to shop, which means that online retail will continue to gain a foothold, even among people who prefer to shop in person. But by taking creative approaches to overcoming these problems, retailers have a fighting chance to salvage what has been a bleak year.